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Book Note

Thoughts On: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right—by Atul Gawande

Summary: Checklists are proven to prevent errors. Even if errors are infrequent, it's worth the time to run through checklists. A good checklist is concise, only covering items that may be forgotten, not every step of the process. It would be a good idea to write checklists for some of the more intricate but infrequent work tasks.

Types of projects and how checklists can help

Projects can be broken down into three types:

  1. Simple - such as following a recipe. There may be techniques to learn, but once mastered, it's repeatable with confidence.
  2. Complicated - like building a rocket. It can be broken down into smaller projects and requires many people, maybe even teams.
  3. Complex - like raising a child. Every project has unique challenges. Doing it successfully provides experience, but not a guarantee of repeatability.

Life is full of simple problems, medical procedures, legal procedures, etc.. checklists are helpful for these jobs.

What makes a bad checklist

  • Vague and imprecise
  • Too long
  • Hard to use
  • Impractical
  • Made by desk jockeys
  • Treat people using the tools as dumb, try to spell out every step
  • Turn peoples brains off rather than on

What makes a good checklist

  • Precise
  • Efficient
  • To the point
  • Easy to use in difficult situations
  • Don't try to spell out everything
  • Are reminders of the most critical and important steps

When to use checklists

The time to use a checklist must be defined, there are two types:

  1. Do/Confirm - first do the job from memory, then use the checklist to confirm that everything was done correctly.
  2. Read/Do - Like step-by-step instructions, as you read each step, complete it, then check it off.

How long should a checklist be?

As a rule of thumb, checklists should be 5 to 9 items.

Case Study Examples

Office tower construction is complex. No two projects are the same. Architecture, materials, budgets, environments, etc., all affect the engineering required. Projects require many specialized skills. Checklists ensure that jobs are completed on time to support each other. Unknown unknowns will arise and when they do, default to the appropriate specialist to solve it, but add regular communication points between teams to the checklist to discover and solve these issues.

Buying stocks in a company: 49 times out of 50, checking stock reports reveals nothing, but when it does, it's very important.

Airline emergency landing: Most pilots will never have an accident in their entire career but always run through full checklists—it means when there is a problem, they are trained to follow the right procedures.

Actionable takeaway

There are infrequently repeated processes at work that I will be creating checklists for after reading this book.


Atul Gawande does a great job at selling the concept of checklists, but like most one-idea business/self-help books, the concept was fully explained a quarter of the way through the book and the rest was just page filler.