The Power of the Checklist

I am rather like a mosquito in a nudist camp; I know what I want to do, but I don’t know where to begin.” – is a famous quote by Author Stephen Bayne about getting things done – or not, as the case may be.

One way of helping us get things done is the humble checklist.

Checklists in everyday life – Personal and Business

The great source of defining English terms – Wikipedia – tells us that a checklist is a list of things to do or confirm that is “designed to reduce the risk of failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention“. Principally its aim is to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a series of tasks.

In business we have come to cohabitate with checklists on a daily basis and indeed often treat them with contempt. However the power of the checklist in daily life is almost all embracing. We use checklists in everything from preparing a list for our grocery shopping to ensuring whole railway networks run safely and on time. In business, checklists are indispensable tools to management in areas such as:

  • business process controlRussiaSoyuz
  • inventory stock take
  • Project Management
  • meeting agendas
  • risk assessment procedures
  • customer service follow up
  • application processing
  • bank reconciliations
  • daily “to do”  lists

In some contexts the checklist is critical to the safety of lives. Imagine launching the most recent Soyuz mission to the NASA Space Station without a checklist. See more about that incredible event at

According to an article written in 2012 by John Schamel the origin of one checklist critical to modern air travel was a tragic accident which occurred in 1934 during the testing of a new aircraft design by the US  Army Air Corps.  The new plane, a Boeing designed bomber was highly advanced and complex in its operation. During its test flight the pilot failed to release the elevator lock before take off which caused the plane to turn over when ascending and crash in flames with the loss of two of the crew.

Critics blamed the overly complex nature of the procedures required to fly the plane as ‘too much airplane for one man to fly’. The reality was that it was simply too complex for any one man’s memory. Something had to be done to create a means by which the pilot and co-pilot made sure that nothing was forgotten. Thus developed the PILOT’s CHECKLIST.

Why a checklist works

A typical checklist possesses the attributes of a list of the items or steps with a means of recording when those items or steps are accounted for or completed. The action of “checking off” these items or steps confirms the progression towards successful completion of the series. To this extent it also represents the simplest form of quality assurance in business activity.

To begin with, it requires the discipline of someone or some team familiar with the required outcome to assemble the list, and in some cases perhaps the priority or sequence of the items on the list. Instructions must then be defined so that the person or persons charged with carrying out the tasks know what is required of them. As they complete each step they can then record that step as executed and proceed to the next.

Using another Space illustration, there is a famous scene in the movie Appollo 13 where the stranded crew are provided by Mission Control with a special procedure checklist to modify the air filtering equipment using only materials to hand on their disabled craft. In that case their very lives depend on following the instructions precisely.


(Image courtesy of

Checklists have been developed into considerable sophistication with the more recent technology of spreadsheet applications, perhaps reaching dizzy heights in complex project management tools such as Microsoft Project, where the simple checklist technique is adapted to timelines and prioritisation to create a widely used management device to control extremely complex sets of interdependent project tasks.

Some criticisms of Checklists

As with most things in Management it is always useful to examine the flip side. In this case it is the danger of accepting Checklists too literally. The power of the Checklist to help human memory can be offset by the tendency of humans to rely too heavily on the list and fail to see risks that lie outside the nominated areas. Checklists should never seek to deprive the people who use them from making sensible decisions based on intelligent observation.

There is also the risk that the creators of the list have missed out some critical step. That is why the preparation of the list although aimed at being comprehensive and complete must allow for questioning should any ommission be detected.

The importance of checklists in managing staff

From a cargo manifest to a computer program, checklists are an important part of our armoury as managers and provide considerable flexibility for remotely controlling activities or tasks we delegate to less experienced personnel. They are readily adaptable as training mechanisms and audit instruments.

Consider the Procedure Manual you issue to new staff to help them understand the way things are done in your area and the steps and processes they need to follow to take items of work from initiation to completion. Is it not fundamentally a Checklist? Business Process Maps and Flowcharts can also be seen as checklists when used to manage or control the activities they represent.

Mark-TwainAlthough often taken for granted Checklists would have to be one of the most valuable business tools developed during the 20th century. It was perhaps a prominent writer of the 19th century however that sowed the seeds of their creation.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one“. – Mark Twain

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