The importance of a checklist

I’ve been working my way through The Checklist Manifesto, which, as you can probably guess, makes the argument that we should all be using checklists. The author tells lots of stories to demonstrate the importance of a checklist, presumably because he had an entire book to fill the subject. One such story is that of the Boeing B-17 bomber.

On October 30, 1935, the US Army Air Corps had a test flight for a new aircraft from Boeing: the B-17 bomber, or “flying fortress” as it was later known. It could fly twice as fast as any previous bomber, almost twice as far, and could carry five times as many bombs as the army had requested.

A small crowd watched as the B-17 roared down the runway, took off smoothly, and climbed to three hundred feet. It then stalled and crashed in a fiery explosion. Two of the five crew members died, including the pilot, Major Hill.

An investigation into the crash revealed that nothing mechanical went wrong. It was due to pilot error. The B-17 was substantially more complex than any previous aircraft. There were four engines to attend to, each with it’s own oil-fuel mix, retractable landing gear, wing flaps, electric trim tabs that needed constant adjustment to maintain stability, among many other things. While doing all this, Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the rudder controls.

The aircraft was deemed “too much airplane for one man to fly”, and the US Army promptly cancelled the contract with Boeing.

Some insiders remained convinced it was flyable. So a group of pilots got together to decide what to do. Interestingly, they didn’t require pilots to go on more training. It was hard to imagine having more experience and expertise than Major Hill. Instead they came up with an ingenious approach: a checklist.

They made a simple checklist for step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, and landing. These were all things that the pilots already knew how to do. You wouldn’t think it would make a difference. But it did. The US Army went on to order thirteen thousand B-17s, and it flew a total of 1.8 million miles without an incident.

The problem is that our jobs are too complex to be carried out by memory alone. The humble checklist provides defence against our own limitations in more tasks than we might realise.

To tell a far less profound story, I once worked on a new website for a large organisation. I worked with a talented team, and we worked hard on the project for 3 months. We pushed the site live without a hitch, and promptly went out to celebrate the completion of the project.

The following week, the client called angrily. The site had disappeared from Google. After a moment’s panic, we realised we had forgotten to untick the “Discourage search engines from indexing this site” checkbox in WordPress.

We’d successfully completed hundreds of tasks while launching the site: set up multiple servers, installed an SSL certificate, performed security checks, checked file permissions, made sure user passwords were strong, and much more. We just missed a single checkbox. And that wouldn’t have happened if we had a checklist in place.

My plan is to produce a 2 minute checklist for every small task in my business: for launching a website, to onboarding a new client, to setting up a new project.

I’ve created a Git repository to store the checklists that I use regularly. It’s then easy to copy and paste these into Trello, using the multiline entry trick.

These checklists have a few simple criteria:

  • It should be clear what the checklist is for and when it should be used
  • The checklist should be short, no more than fifteen items
  • The wording should be simple and precise

It doesn’t matter if you’re a freelancer or a team of 100, a checklist is the simplest and quickest way to prevent errors and mistakes.

Update (28/06/2020): I’ve published the checklists I use to run my business.