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Checklists at work

Checklists are more useful that we give them credit for. Across all professions.

A checklist is a list of steps or items to be followed for completing a certain task, that allows for systematic results. It is a type of job aid used to reduce the chance of failure by compensating for the limits of human cognition, memory and attention.

To showcase the effectiveness of checklists, in his book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande describes how he introduced a surgery checklist to eight hospitals.

Before performing each surgery, surgeons, nurses, and other personnel systematically went through the checklist to remind themselves of the steps involved in the procedure. This new practice resulted in 36% fewer major complications and 47% fewer deaths.

Checklists are part science, part art. If they are too detailed, they may end up being irrelevant and people will invent shortcuts. If they are too vague, they won’t be as helpful.

Checklists at work

While there is no universal checklist (each business needs to develop a custom-made version), there exist useful prototypes with items specifically developed to steer the decision-making process clear of cognitive traps. For example, including questions such as:

  • Where did the numbers come from?

  • If you had to make this decision again in a year, what information would you want, and can you get more of it now?

  • Are the people making the recommendation overly attached to past decisions?

  • Imagine it’s a year later and the project was a disaster. Why did that happen? (Pre-mortem technique.)

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