Updated on 09.19.10

Review: The Checklist Manifesto

Trent Hamm

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

checklist manifestoEvery once in a while, a book I read for personal enjoyment becomes a book reviewed on The Simple Dollar. This is one of those times.

I thoroughly enjoyed Atul Gawande’s first two books, Better and Complications. Both offered great insight into the difficult professional choices of a surgeon while also offering a good handful of useful insights to anyone who works in a challenging field.

I expected more of those types of insights from this, Gawande’s third book. Instead, it went beyond that, becoming instead a strong personal productivity and personal excellence book. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right focuses on the power of using checklists to ensure that you bring complicated projects to fruition as well as constantly remind yourself of the many things you need to do as part of your routine.

The Problem of Extreme Complexity
First, it should be mentioned that Gawande spends most of his time in this book – and in his other books – using his surgical experiences as a metaphor for elements in the lives of most people: technically challenging careers, overstuffed personal lives, and so on. Here, Gawande’s focus is on the fact that many of us have many complicated routines in our lives – in his case, very complex ones. Because of the complexity of our lives and of those routines, it’s incredibly easy for us to sometimes miss a step, with disastrous consequences.

I’ll use myself for an example. I have a morning routine with a lot of steps in it, from my own personal hygiene to processing my inboxes to taking care of my children. On a typical morning, it can be easy to overlook a step. Did I take my synthroid? Did I remember to put the right kind of training pants on my daughter? Did I make sure that their teeth were brushed? Did I get my notes from last night into my inbox? Did I put on deodorant *sniff*?

The Checklist
Gawande’s solution is simple: a checklist for all such complicated routines. Interestingly, Gawande mostly focuses on the negative perceptions that checklists sometimes have, mostly in that you’re “dumb” if you need one and that technically competent people shouldn’t need one. Gawande’s argument is that people generally find themselves in challenging positions no matter their personal skill level and that checklists help anyone who finds themselves in such a challenging position (and frankly, that’s most of us). They’re a cognitive net that defends us against failure, to paraphrase Gawande.

The End of the Master Builder
Checklists don’t help us with every type of complicated problem, however. You can’t checklist creativity, nor can you checklist problems that crop up along the way. However, virtually none of us sit around and do purely creative work. Our creative work is merely one element of a larger routine, one that is often comprised of a lot of steps. Take writing an article, for example. Yes, there is a big creative burst (the idea for an article) and a lot of smaller ones (words and phrases) along the way, but the process is actually pretty structured – core idea, research, structuring of sub-ideas, first draft, revision, second draft, and so on. Not only is it not all that arcane, but that structure is sharable in that others can see and follow that same routine.

The Idea
The entire purpose of a checklist is to reduce the number of uncertainties in a complex procedure. The more complex a procedure is, the more uncertainties it has because each element relies on a host of other elements being correct. Checklists serve as a way to make sure that the relied-upon elements are all in place. I particularly enjoyed one element of the chapter, which focused on the “rider” that the rock band Van Halen used when touring in the 1980s. A “rider” is more or less a checklist – it specifies the technical requirements that need to be in place for the band’s show (lighting, instruments, stage, etc.). One element their rider included was a requirement that a bowl of M&Ms be backstage in the dressing room – with all of the brown M&Ms removed. Why? When the group arrived, they could go backstage and look for the M&M bowl. If they found brown M&Ms in the bowl, they’d know that the checklist wasn’t being followed to the letter and they’d have to go through and check everything themselves because there was a lack of attention to detail. (Maybe sometimes over-the-top rock star behavior makes more sense than you think!)

The First Try
Here, Gawande outlines his first attempt at using checklists in his technical work, discovering that an overly-detailed checklist can result in uselessness. While developing a checklist for pre-surgical routines, Gawande kept adding details to the list until every base was covered. The only problem is that the checklist became simply too unwieldy to actually use and was discarded in less than a day. Why? The checklist was getting in the way of actually getting things done.

The Checklist Factory
What’s the solution to that problem? Gawande found the answer while visiting with members of the airline industry. Rather than having one or two mega-checklists, they had scores of smaller ones to handle specific situations. They kept them all in a well-organized book with tabs making them easy to find. When a particular situation came up, they had a short checklist in that book to tell them how to handle it, ensuring that key steps of key procedures weren’t forgotten.

The Test
What happened as Gawande attempted to apply this at work is that it moved a lot of the thinking for various specific routines up front. By having a usable checklist to apply to a certain task, the user’s brainspace was free in that moment to make sure that the little task was done correctly instead of having to store the “next steps” in their head. If this sounds like it ties in very well to Getting Things Done, you’re right.

The Hero in the Age of Checklists
What about the idea of the “hero” who swoops in and solves a problem, seemingly without effort? Today’s “hero” is smart enough to realize that success doesn’t always come from just repeating the same checklist over and over again. Instead, great success often comes from analyzing the checklist itself and occasionally revising the plan to meet new conditions. Review is well-rewarded in that it can result in more efficient and more fruitful checklists.

The Save
In the end, though, checklists succeed because they help you find big problems that you might have otherwise overlooked due to your own sense of familiarity with the situation. When we become intimately familiar with a routine, it’s very easy to overlook a certain step or two – and those steps can be critical ones in the process. I like to think of this in terms of preparing a meal. More than once, I’ve ruined a meal because I overlooked the usefulness of simply getting the ingredients out and ready beforehand. When something’s in the skillet and you’ve found that the vegetables you need to add aren’t prepped, you’re probably going to ruin that meal.

Is The Checklist Manifesto Worth Reading?
Gawande is an excellent writer, and all of his books – The Checklist Manifesto, Better, and Complications – are worthwhile reads that will challenge you to reflect on your own career and life.

The Checklist Manifesto stands out for the simple reason that the conclusions drawn in the book lead you to some actionable things in your life. There are many, many places where a checklist can be useful in your life, from your morning routine to the details of a complicated professional procedure to elements of Getting Things Done.

This book has already caused me to do some things differently in my own life, mostly in terms of making some checklists for a few routine things that I sometimes mess up. I don’t know of a higher compliment to pay a book than that.

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  1. Elaine Huckabay says:

    Great job. I think this is a great book to profile for a book review and I think the central tenets are very applicable to personal finance as well. I tend to live my life with lists, to dos, and all sorts of organizational schema, so I’m not sure how much I would benefit from this book. Suffice it to say, I think that if people aren’t living with these principles, their lives would probably be improved if they did.

    Elaine Huckabay

  2. BeccaT says:

    For us the main checklist is groceries. My husband does the major shopping, and he long held the view that he needed to buy only what family members wrote on the blackboard. But if I was busy and finished up a container of something, I might not go to my stash in the basement to be sure we had more. It was exasperating to be in the middle of making breakfast to discover we were out of baking powder. So now we have a master list that we check off before we go shopping.

  3. Bobbie says:

    I love checklists and use one every morning. Some people (my brother in law) have seen it laying around and questioned why I would need a checklist for such simple things. My husband quickly told him to leave it alonw- it works really well for our house. I really like that Van Halen story too- and it is a great point.

  4. E A Macomber says:

    I have read this book and really enjoyed it. Deciding on an operating room checklist wasn’t as easy as they thought it was going to be. Too long and no one would use it but too short and it wouldn’t reach the goal intended. Making the checklist really useful took some rehearsal and trial and error. Having participating operating teams in so many different hospitals was really a valuable tool.

    It is interesting that they decided to leave on the check that the correct body part was going to be operated on even though this type of mistake rarely happens. Shortly after reading this book, the story came out about the patient who had the wrong leg amputated. How terrible to think a checklist could have helped to prevent this from happening.

    This book made me think about my own project checklist making skills. The whole team needs to be involved in making the checklist and a trial run through doesn’t hurt.

  5. Courtney says:

    Wonder if Van Halen ate the M & M’s. I would be too skeeved out at the possibility that whoever pawed through them had less-than-clean hands.

  6. Raya says:

    ” *sniff* ” – that was so cute :) Added great flavour to a great article. I also loved the M&M story.

  7. WendyH says:

    for me, the act of writing a checklist helps me to remember the items on it, which is helpful because I tend to either forget my checklist or stop somewhere unexpectedly and don’t have it with me.

  8. Donna says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I have used checklists for years to do tasks that I do infrequently (preparing for vacation (securing the house and packing), camping trips, winterizing our travel trailer, and backing up the computer, just to name a few) I’m looking forward to reading this book – especially the part about improving checklists. And, the really good news is that my local library has a copy!

  9. Debbie M says:

    Interesting. And I agree with Wendy’s point.

    I like the idea of checklists for things I’ve supposedly learned. For example, when editing my writing, it might be good. I know I tend to use pronouns too much so that it’s not always clear what I’m talking about. An editing checklist with the item “check pronouns” would be handy.

    I’ve also thought of putting a checklist by the front door, showing things I commonly want to have with me when I leave the house, like keys, wallet, hat, dance shoes, grocery bag.

    As far as cooking, I definitely use the ingredients list as a checklist. When I think I’m done making a batter, for example, I look over the ingredient list again to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

    As far as personal finance, I definitely have an end-of-the-month checklist to make sure I’ve paid all my bills!

  10. kate says:

    Does anyone have a good idea of a portable way to do electronic checklists? I used to use a palm pilot, and I found it invaluable. However, it has since died. I really don’t want to get into using a blackberry or other smart phone, as I don’t want to pay the monthly fee. Plus, I really liked the whole Palm platform and syncing with my computer. I’m not sure the smart phones do as well.

  11. Adam says:

    To #10 Kate: I use simplenote on my ipod touch, which syncs automatically to my desktop. I have about 30 to-do lists, and it is incredibly handy.

  12. Kate says:

    I do checklists myself. What’s interesting is when you think through the individual steps in repeated actions.

    For example, I play the organ. Before each piece, this is the “checklist”: Stops set correctly? Mute stop off? Feet on first two notes required. Hands in position. Count-two-three… All of this takes less than a second, and of course I don’t have an actual checklist.

    But I have TRAINED myself to run through this little list mentally each time, because when I don’t, I make mistakes. My fingers and feet come down but there’s no sound: mute stop still on. Or the sound is soft, reedy: the stops are still set for the last piece. Or I spend part of the first measure adrift in case I was thinking the wrong time signature or meter.

    So it’s worth training yourself into little mental “checklists” of this kind, even for simple tasks. One I trained myself into years ago is that I always lock doors with the key, to ensure that I am not locking myself out.

    Great review, and I may look for the book.

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