Every construction job begins with a massive checklist of tasks that have to get done and each task has an accompanying deadline. While that to-do list plays an important role in ensuring stuff gets done, an equally valuable checklist is also used. Called a “submittal schedule,” it centers on communication. The submittal schedule details which project managers need to talk to which project managers during a specific phase and about a specific process. The submittal schedule’s purpose is to get teams that are working on different yet co-dependent projects to regularly connect so they can discuss any potential sticking points. For example, there might be an item on the checklist for carpenters and plumbers to meet up at a specific time to discuss their progress on their respective tasks. Maybe a problem has come up with the pipes that affects when the carpenters can get started on their work, but perhaps there’s something the carpenters can do to help the plumbers. The trick is to keep each other in the loop so each respective team can take care of these “known unknowns” as quickly and as effectively as they can. Once the teams talk, they check the communication task as complete, and move on with their work.
Lastly, the checklist involves a Time Out: this requires that everything stops and no one interrupts. In an emergency, or under extreme time pressure, it is difficult to get everyone on the team to stop what they are doing and attend completely. The loss of team discussion under time pressure has been described by some centres implementing the Safe Surgery checklist.6 ,13 These are the times when mistakes are most likely to occur, yet paradoxically also when the Time Out portion of the checklist (the briefing to support complex work) is least likely to be performed as intended.
Checklists let you put tasks in order so you can accomplish the most important things first. Once you have put things in writing though, you might feel pressured to complete the tasks in order. This can slow you down. Some people work better when they can jump from task to task and let their emotions guide them. A checklist might impede their emotion. However, if you truly need to finish certain tasks before moving to new ones, a checklist will keep you focused and on-track.
Google Sheets beat Microsoft to the punch and introduced a Checkbox as one of the Data Validation options. You can go to Insert > Checkbox to quickly create one, and you can customize it by going to Data > Data Validation. I've updated most of the Google Sheets versions of my checklists to use that feature. I hope Excel gets smart and introduces a similar feature some day.
If you do not want to exhaust your team members’ creativity, checklists are a must-have tool for production. Their function is simple - to check whether anything is forgotten or unfinished. And the most important thing is that you do not have to create a new checklist every time a task appears. Creative energy can be channeled to the more exacting tasks.
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.
Agile software development leverages a technique called the user story to get enough information for implementing software features from an end-user perspective. Shaping acceptance criteria is an integral part of this process that can be improved with a checklist's help. You can create a special format containing categories, point assessments, labels, names, etc. For example, a Definition of Ready can be transformed in Definition of Done category after changing the story specification. On the picture below, you can see an implementation plan, which is, in fact, a ToDo list containing guidance on how to handle the user story written in the description section.
I started to brain storm other areas that checklists could be beneficial. In the construction industry, Gawande explains that checklists are used so that key points are discussed between those in different aspects of the building process. For research, are there things that you always need to talk about with other experimenters or your supervisor when it comes to a study? Maybe a checklist can help there too. Also, when editing manuscripts or proofs, you could have a structured set of points to assess such as, “check to make sure data in tables/figures is correct” or “make sure reference list is up to date”. These all seem so basic, but if taking the time to go over them and know that once you’ve handed in the manuscript that these things have definitely been checked, it could prevent you from having to submit an erratum due to something like an improper figure.
We’ve mentioned debugging as a component of the deployment process. However, a process of removing existing and potential errors in the code can be optimized with checklists describing the most important steps for both novice and experienced team members. With that in mind, you will turn the never-ending process of fixing errors into an organized and tailored activity for product optimization.
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.
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