Checklists help you to be less stupid

(photo courtesy of

When was the last time you did something inexplicably, inevitably, and irreplaceably … dumb? (For me, about a week ago.) And chances are, it was something you’ve done before – maybe a hundred or even a thousand times – and yet in the moment that you did it, you simply forgot one of the steps (or a sequence, or something else that just slipped your mind.) Imagine if instead of the relatively mundane things that you had been doing that you were in charge of someone’s safety or indeed, their life.

Checklists save lives

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and teacher at Harvard Medical School who is trying to change the way people go about routine (but important) tasks with his book The Checklist Manifesto.
He found upon doing research that simple checklists (like those used by airline pilots) helped improve the basic sanitation of frequent procedures like IV lines in hospitals and saved a lot of lives. Just by making sure people soap their hands in the correct way is important (your mother and many public health professionals would agree.)

The idea of a checklist is similar to the principles of the Lean Startup,
where measurement others service of small improvements is used to find the smallest big thing you can change, measure the result of the change, and then see whether it made an effect on your business. Could a checklist for everyday items like responding to email, running a meeting, and following up on the last minute items for a deploy, a release or a product launch prove just as useful?

Apply checklists outside of the OR

It probably won’t save as many lives as making sure that infectious disease is curbed in sanitary operating rooms, but using the principles of the Checklist is a great idea for making sure releases and product launches proceed according to plan. Yet there’s a smaller, subtler change that also has to happen for this change to become widespread.

In every team that has high-performing team leaders, there will be pressure by the leaders to “just do things the way we normally do them.” Gawande details in his book the difficulty of getting surgeons to follow the checklist at first, until the nurses, other specialists, and system itself was set up to ensure that following the checklist became part of the procedure (and part of the team’s measurement of success.) The ultimate idea is to automate more stuff that you do all of the time.

Takeaway: build checklists as tangible measures of success in your release, deploy, or meeting process. You do this for disaster recovery and for crisis management – why not for everyday work too?


One thought on “Checklists help you to be less stupid

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  1. Greg,

    Excellent post.

    I once read that at best we can only hold about 7 items in our conscious memory, so no matter how capable you think you are you haven’t a hope in hell of remembering everything, unless you write them down.

    Hence the power of the much maligned check list


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