Checklists Are Great – Or are they?

Checklists are a fact of life and the organization of life’s tasks, but checklists are not an appropriate answer for all environments.

I was leaving for the grocery store a few years ago, and my wife gave me a shopping list. I smiled and said – “Ah thank you for the list of suggestions.” My mother-in-law asked my wife after I left, what was that smart remark all about? My wife correctly stated that the shopping list was more of an outline. If one cut of beef were a better buy, she knew I would substitute that for the more expensive prescribed cut. If eggs were on sale, I would buy extra eggs. If the vegetables requested were too much, I would find others. My wife, as usual, was spot on.

The immutable checklist only works in an environment that is static. Let me explain. When pilots get ready to take off, they have a checklist of all of the things they need to do. If a pilot gets too busy or gets distracted the mistakes can be made, some errors make the pilots look foolish; other errors can be deadly. Pilots use the logical flow patterns to address the tasks and systems that must be attended for each phase of a flight. And yes, it is always the same for each aircraft. Is a Cessna 172 different from a Boeing 737 – sure? But the basic procedures are the same for each aircraft. That is an example of a static environment. I am not implying that is simple – just that it very rarely changes.

In constructing a checklist, steps have a logical sequence and order in which they must be performed. For example, inspection the outside of the aircraft comes before you start the engines. Checking your gauges can only occur after the power is on, the engines are running, and the vacuum gauge is in the green zone. The static environment can be complicated but is rarely complex.*

Let’s shift to looking at a company or a person. Right away we are out of a static environment and into a very dynamic environment where nothing is the same and choices are not complex but complicated.* Even if we have a checklist made up for coffee shops – a finely tuned checklist for everything we think we need to know – it is not enough. Every coffee shop is different. Each shop has different employees. Each coffee shop location is subject to different laws, they are established in different neighborhoods that are changing, and are subject to the evolution and application of technology. In short, a static checklist will not provide a proper and fit inquiry into the nature or the risks of all coffee shops.

What about people? Every person has a different bushel basket of educational credential and life experiences. When a client was looking to hire an international manager one of the requirements is that they have a degree in international management. On the surface it makes sense. However, we asked the hiring manager, what about a person who may have a degree in English or Engineering but has worked in over 30 countries? She said, “That would be good too.” Did you hear that logic trap in her response? A degree does not confer experience. A degree in international management does not mean the person has even left the country. The hiring requirements were adjusted to reflect the dynamic environment of a candidate’s experiences.

Every time and we mean every time, we have seen a fraud, an error in due diligence, a botched merger, and acquisition, someone will tell us “well we followed the checklist.” For some reason “following a checklist” has become a reflexive defense for failure. In the real world of risks and in the real world of litigation – “I followed the checklist” is a recipe for both termination and follow on liability. It is the civil equivalent of the Nuremberg defense.

Checklists do not spell out everything. A checklist cannot fly a plane. A checklist merely provides reminders of critical and important steps when flying a plane. The critical steps are the ones even the highly skilled professional pilots could miss if distracted. Checklists are not a to do list – but a reminder to think about what you are doing promptly.

Some people believe that given an infinite number of checklists they can make sense of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human beings with real world experience and critical thinking skills are the key.

If you are considering, or in the process of implementing a checklist solution, please reach out to us, and we would be happy to see how we can ensure you do as best as possible, and mitigate your risks.

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*Complex denotes environments where choice making may be difficult, but facts, data, and steps taken typically do not interact with one another. A complicated environment is where the facts, data, and choices made do interact with one another and error can cause a compound cascade effect that is an order of magnitude greater than the error.

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