Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Check Lists

Technique Tuesday

A book called The Checklist Manifesto* has been getting a fair amount of attention recently. And rightly so: its message that complexity can be managed through the time-honored (if often only in the breach) pattern of a check list.

Here's what Steven D. Levitt at the Freakonomics blog had to say about the book: 
The book’s main point is simple: no matter how expert you may be, well-designed check lists can improve outcomes (even for Gawande’s own surgical team). The best-known use of checklists is by airplane pilots. Among the many interesting stories in the book is how this dedication to checklists arose among pilots.
I have not read this book yet, but I wanted to mention it to show that I'm not the only one who thinks checklists are a good idea.

But in the particular context of little systems, I wanted to lead off with an example with which people should have some familiarity. A check list, you see, is a canonical example of a little system. Like the mark etched on the coffee pots, check lists simplify a process by reducing it to a series of small steps or checks.

The magic is not in the list, but the steps. A list like:
  1. Find site for evil lair
  2. Recruit minions
  3. Invent doomsday device
  4. Take over world
Isn't a check list because the steps are both large and nebulous. The steps in a check list need to be small and concrete. Ideally, the steps shouldn't require much thought: is an item present or not? is the system functioning or not.

It's not that little systems like check lists take away our responsibility to think, it's that they help us simplify what would otherwise be a complex situation.

What common activities can you simplify with a check list?

* I receive no benefit for the Amazon link. I've provided it simply as a courtesy.
Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net