As an unrepentant checklist fanatic/junkie, I recently had to pick myself up off the floor in an airport newsstand. There with all the romance novels and the latest silver-bullet management books was The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande. A best-selling book about checklists? The world wants to read about checklists?

This is the beginning of hope for the world. It is a great book that I obviously recommend reading. I also recommend giving copies of it to everyone you work with. The price of the book is nothing vs. the value it delivers.

A practicing surgeon, Dr. Gawande goes over the incredible reductions in hospital deaths and infections achieved through the use of checklists. In an eight hospital study, there was a 36-percent drop in major surgical complications and a 47-percent drop in deaths.

Highly skilled, busy people forget basic, key things and don’t even realize it. Just think of the productivity improvement potential. What expensive capital projects can deliver this type of improvement?

The point of this book is that with the growing complexity of everything these days, no one — not even the best trained, most capable people — can possibly remember everything. So let’s make sure we don’t miss any of the basic, routine, essential items — the ones we’re most likely to forget. Use checklists.

The book is a quick, enjoyable read, but it needs to be reread so it all sinks in and gets used.

Other key points in the book are:

  • Checklists need to include communication items, not just tasks.
  • Checklists enable effective teamwork to the point that the more limited, knee-jerk, command-and-control approach just can’t compete.
  • How to build an actual useable checklist, how Boeing does it and how the aerospace giant builds checklists for alarm conditions. Focus on the key, basic, routine items that get missed.
  • Training by itself won’t succeed. Even the best trained people forget basic things.

Another related item I heard on the radio recently came from an interview with author Jonah Lehrer talking about his book How We Decide. He described how easy it is to overload the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the relatively puny part of the brain responsible for organizing the conflicting signals coming from all of the other parts of the brain into making the best decision.

A Stanford University study compared the resolve of some diet-conscious folks on whether to eat chocolate cake or fruit salad. They were split into two groups. One group worked on memorizing two-digit numbers, while the other worked on memorizing seven-digit numbers. The groups then had to make the dietary choice. The seven-digit group was more than twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake as compared to the two-digit group. The added mental effort affected their decision to make the responsible choice.

This is another argument for using checklists — to just plain reduce the workload on the brain so it can work better.

About the Author

Currently working as a consultant, John Crossan retired after spending 30-plus years with the Clorox Company. His roles for much of the past 14 years were mainly focused on improving operations by fostering the installation and ongoing implementation of basic manufacturing and maintenance procedural mechanisms across 30 varied plants in the U.S. and Canada. Prior to Clorox, John also held operational and engineering roles with Johnson & Johnson and the Burndy Corporation. He can be reached via e-mail at john@johncrossan.com or online at www.johncrossan.com.