​​Why checklists make great tools

If you have not yet read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, you need to add this title to your list of recommended reading. In it, Gawande enshrines the doctrine of the checklist, and provides practical suggestions on how to incorporate it into your personal and professional environments. Even though the book was published nearly a decade ago, much of Gawande’s advice stills holds true. The Checklist Manifesto makes an excellent case for the importance of planning ahead and being systematic. It also emphasises the significance of following procedure, and demonstrates that although we may take routine checks for granted, we really shouldn’t.

Indeed, if you’re an organised person, the idea of the checklist is either one you’re already incorporating, or one you would consider implementing. If you’re still working on being organised, however, you may be resistant to the idea. Don’t be: it’s an easy system to employ and follow.

Think about it this way: if you commit the steps of a procedure to memory, you’re probably going to forget some of them along the way – particularly during periods of heightened stress. If you have a physical reminder of those steps (and actually tick them off as you complete them), you’re more likely to circumvent errors by correcting them before they snowball.

Checklists are meant to be simple. If your checklist is thirty pages long with lots of bullet points, you’ll need to refine it significantly and ruthlessly. First, rate the importance of each step in a procedure, and then answer the following questions:

  1. What are the crucial steps – the ones that simply have to be done?
  2. If you skipped one of those steps who would be adversely affected?
  3. Can any of the steps be made simpler?

Once you’re satisfied with the final product, the key is regular execution. Refer to the checklist every time you need to complete a procedure, follow the steps, and tick them off as they’re completed – and only when they’re completed.

The templates below offer two simple examples: the first assists authors in preparing their manuscripts for publishing houses. The second focuses on preparing software for deployment, assuming that the software has passed user-acceptance testing (UAT). You’ll notice that they both contain only close-ended questions. Remember, the aim of your checklist is to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions – it is not a questionnaire designed for feedback.

Example 1: Author’s checklist: preparing a manuscript for a publisher

Steps Yes/No
Have you identified a suitable publisher?
Is the selected publisher interested in your genre?
Have you made contact with the publisher?
Are you familiar with their manuscript submission requirements?
Have you prepared a synopsis of your work?
Do you have permission to use the artwork you plan to submit?
Do you have a reference list?

Example 2: Developer’s checklist: software deployment

Steps Yes/No
Have you made a backup of the application in production?
Have you made a backup of the database in production?
Have you pulled in the new source code?
Have you made all the required database changes (if applicable)?
Have you stopped the live (old) application?
Have you started the new application?
Have you tested that the new changes work correctly?
Have you tested old features to ensure they still work correctly?

Checklists are tools which are easily adaptable to most tasks and professions. Once you adopt them, you’ll realise that they’re useful tracking and management aids. Try implementing checklists on basic procedures first: once you’re comfortable, the principles are easily transferable to more complicated ones. Try them for yourself and see your efficiency improve.