Friday, February 19, 2016

Completed: The Checklist Manifesto


This might be one of those super short reviews---honestly, I just don't have much to say about this book. I probably would have really enjoyed it if it had just been a magazine article, but it didn't seem meaty enough to warrant a whole book.

The author describes how checklists are valuable when used in complex situations. It may seem counterintuitive, but when faced with complex, multi-step tasks, checklists help people make sure they have done the most important steps.

Gawande goes on to describe how checklists have helped in medicine, which is interesting enough. And he describes how they are also used in aviation, which is interesting enough. So, it's pretty convincing that checklists are helpful when there is complexity and procedures. But it was hard to see how this would apply in my own work. My job is complex but it's not governed by procedure. Good curriculum design just doesn't quite work the same way as surgery---and so it just felt sort of weird. I mean, dude, you're going to call something a manifesto, it should be something that everyone would benefit from, right??

Don't get me wrong. There's some interesting stuff about how to make good checklists and the different types of checklists, but it's not something I actually think I can implement in my life.

There were two parts of the book that I most enjoyed. Probably the best part of the book was the ending where he described how the pilots of US Airways flight 1549, which is the one that the pilots landed on the Hudson River after the engines were taken out be geese. Honestly, it's a great story! And he talks about how part of the checklist actually said, "Fly the airplane!" because under such stressful circumstances, it's possible for pilots to focus on everything going wrong and forget to fly the plane.

The other part I really enjoyed debunked something of an urban legend. I'd heard a story about how the band VanHalen required all their venues to remove all of the brown M&Ms out of the bowls of candy that were placed backstage. As it turns out, the brown M&Ms were just a test. The sets, lights, and staging of their shows were so complex that they threw that M&M clause in as a test. If they went backstage and saw brown M&Ms, they would know they had to go through and test everything else at the venue. It was a warning that there were going to be other problems. At one venue, after finding brown pieces of candy, they discovered that the stage would have collapsed under the weight and load of the set and were able to cancel the performance. This one item on the checklist helped them judge the level of detail at any particular arena.

There was nothing *wrong* with the book. It was fine. But it was not my manifesto.


  1. I am a HUGE fan of the checklist -- *especially* in emergency situations. In my work doing corporate communications, the biggest area I found resistance (no one wanted to *create* the danged checklists) were the areas that were most helpful (Systems are down? Everyone is running around in a panic? Do what it says to do on the damned checklist and we'll get through this!)

    Not sure if it was just *my* company, or if it's everyone, but I feel like there is often a resistance to "process." Is it because we feel like, "Hey, we're smart enough to figure things out" (so the process is insulting) or is a general disbelief/denial that we will *need* a process at some point? I don't know, but it drives me crazy.

    So perhaps that is why this guy went so far as to call it a "manifesto" -- because he has seen enough times that there have been people resisting the checklist and he knows that they are important. Maybe it gives it more weight?

    And, although I understand what you are saying that most of your job is not "governed by procedure," there are certainly *areas* of your job that *are*. For instance, what do you do in a fire? (For that matter, any kind of emergency?) Those are *definitely* the areas that can benefit from procedure/checklist.

    On a day-to-day level, even if it's something you do every day, it can be good to have a checklist in case you are not there. I have no idea what this would mean for you, but if you come into the classroom, check your supplies, verify that your equipment is working, straighten desks, etc... you might be surprised to find there are a number of things that you do automatically every day that could, in fact, *be* checklisted. If not for you, for someone else (a sub, a new teacher learning the ropes, etc.)

    I know it often feels heavy-handed, and that is certainly the biggest risk/challenge of procedures/checklists (it often feels like it takes the "thinking" out of the equation, which we should never forget -- we ALSO might need to do!) buuuut... I'm a fan of the checklist.

    So much so that... I knew the whole story behind the M&Ms rider. ;)

  2. You should read this book, then! You'd super enjoy it. Sounds like you are the perfect person for it. There was a whole part about how there are two different kinds of cheklists, the READ-DO and the DO-CONFIRM. In the first, you actually just read it and do the steps, while in the second, you do what you think is right and confirm that you're getting it all right.

    I think as a teacher, "workflow" is definitely something I think about more than checklists. But no one person does anything the same way in teaching. Even lesson planning, which does have discrete parts, can be done in any order and still be successful.

    You're right that there are definitely procedures for things like fire drills, but those are all mandated from above. They aren't anything I get to set as a regular classroom teacher.


    1. BTW -- In NO WAY was I intending to say that your entire job is about "straightening desks". I was just saying... there's plenty of stuff we do every day that is so automatic for us, it might be ripe for a checklisting.

      For instance, making coffee in my house has a 4-line checklist: Beans, water, rinse filter, empty yesterday's coffee. Cannot TELL YOU how often I miss one of those if I do not count off all 4 in a visible way (like, on my fingers).

      I feel dumb about this, like -- how does this simple process need a checklist? But hey -- it works.

    2. I know you don't think the only thing I do is straighten desks ;-)