Managing Complexity with Checklists

If you like reading about innovative and practical ideas, here’s a book I recommend: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. The subtitle is How to Get Things Right (Picador, 2009, 215 pages).

Gawande is interested in avoiding mistakes caused not by ignorance but by the natural limitations of the human mind.

The theory behind it is this: A person can only attend to a certain number of details at a given time. Meanwhile, “every day there is more and more to manage and get right and learn…. The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us” (p. 13).

The field of aviation provides a model solution for us. Perhaps because their failures always hit the headlines, they are serious about avoiding them. Pilots have easy access to brief, well-crafted checklists telling them exactly what steps to take when any particular thing goes wrong on a flight. 

Well-written checklists can help in two ways: they can prompt us to remember crucial tasks at the proper time, and they can prompt people to communicate with one another at crucial stages of a process when a communication breakdown could cause problems.

Example: Teams of architects, engineers, and builders use checklists to be sure key people talk to one another before each decision-point in the construction of a skyscraper.

Example: Surgical teams use checklists to ensure they remember to administer the antibiotic at the right time to prevent infections.

Gawande’s insights rang true with my own experiences of discovering, for example, after running errands, that I had forgotten something important because I hadn’t bothered to write it on my list. So I’ve been pondering other ways checklists might help me.

I’ve made a checklist of dates on which bills must be paid to avoid a late fee. Forgetting due dates is a mistake I’ve made several times—and certainly not because the information wasn’t available. But when life becomes complex, other things demand my attention and distract me from mundane necessities. Avoiding fees is one of my New Year’s Resolutions, and I think Gawande has supplied just the right tool.

I’d love to hear your ideas for how a checklist could help us “to get things right.”

I’d also love to hear about what you are reading.

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I am a Christian thinker, reader, and writer, who never travels without chocolate. See the “About” page for details.

2 Responses to "Managing Complexity with Checklists"

  1. Teri Hyrkas says:

    The Checklist Manifesto sounds like it has very helpful information, Tracey. I am curious about how you came upon Gawande’s book. Did you buy it after reading a description of it, or did you see it at the library?
    I surround myself with calendars – which is a type of a checklist, I think – to help me remember dates. I use datebook calendars, wall calendars, desk calendars and phone app calendars. My goal is to use calaendars as visual cues to train my brain to LOOK at the calendar, and thus be more aware of dates, apts,meetings, etc. I think I am somewhat better at keeping track of these things now than when I was younger, and maybe it is a result of the calendars.

    A Book that I have read recently is *War Horse* by Michael Morpurgo. This book is written for young adults, and is narrated by a horse ( yes, a horse) which is taken from the UK to serve in the cavalry in WW1 on the continent of Europe. This anti-war story is short – you can certainly read it at one sitting. The movie by the same name has just been released and has already been nominated for 6 Academy Awards. I plan to see it soon.

    • Tracey says:

      I heard about Chacklist Manifesto from some people in the State Dept. of Education who were excited about it.
      War Horse sounds like a great story.


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