Law school exams. I stumbled upon the power of checklists for managing complex problems while in law school. In a law class, a single three-hour long essay exam determines your final grade. You’re presented with one or two complex hypothetical situations and are required to identify and analyze all the legal issues in them. To excel on law school exams, knowing the law isn’t enough. You have to be adept at applying it to different legal scenarios.
Any operation, be it a part of software development process or any other activity, consists of complex and basic tasks. Nobody wants to focus on humdrum stuff instead of the lucrative part of the work. However, both elements are important, and checklists allow you to remember the little things. There happen to be some simple tasks in a pipeline, and they should not be ignored.
Non-boldface checklists are used to provide decision support when time is not critical. In complicated situations, such as multiple system failures, the checklist appears in the form of a flow chart or decision tree, helping the pilot(s) to navigate the process. In modern aircraft, the checklist is built into the electronic cockpit system, which leads the pilots through the appropriate steps on the screen. The steps are colour-coded for urgency and ranked in priority order. As steps are completed, they disappear from the screen. Checklist items are arranged in a systems operational sequence and are consistent with the patterns of motor and eye movements of the crew.
My interest in general checklists above and beyond the detailed lab notebook began after reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and Harvard Professor (he also is the author of a New Yorker column on the same subject). The purpose of this book is to describe how a basic checklist can help us perform complex tasks consistently, correctly, and safely. Much of the book is told from the point of view of eliminating errors during surgery, but Gawande also draws on stories on how checklists have benefited those in construction, aviation, and investing.
Checklists put everything you need to do right in front of you. You can see the beginning, middle and end of what needs to be done. Though this helps some people tackle tasks in front of them, it can also be distracting. If you are the type who prefers to take things one step at a time, you might enjoy working through a checklist. Big picture people might struggle with a large collection of isolated items, however, and might need other tools such as mind maps, ideas lists and deadline reminders to help them focus on what needs to be done.
We may not like to admit it, but many of us can describe a time when we’ve made a mistake during the progress of a study. These mistakes can range from mixing up wires or forgetting to turn on an amplifier to forgetting to collect an essential piece of information that either requires additional processing time or prevents you from analyzing a certain variable altogether. Increased computing power and technological advancements have also made it easier than ever to collect data.
1. Checklists verify that the necessary minimum gets done. With increasing complexity comes the temptation to skip over the stupid simple stuff and instead focus on the “sexy” parts of one’s work and life. Because the stupid simple stuff is so stupid and simple, we often fool ourselves that it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. But as we’ve seen, it’s often our most basic tasks that can spell the difference between success and disaster.