I was intrigued to read the Checklist Manifesto. Is the author’s intent to replace project plans with project checklists? Or is it more about complementing the project plan with a checklist? Or does a checklist apply in a completely different set of circumstances that aren’t really projects at all? The short answer, from Atul Gawande’s perspective, is that a checklist is more suitable for repeated processes and the unexpected results they can generate, rather than one-off projects. This is partly because getting a checklist absolutely right requires even more effort, testing and rigor than creating a project plan. However, where a project does include repeatable processes, a checklist may be an appropriate complement to the project plan.
Below are some of the differences between project plans and checklists, based on the way the book describes checklists:
|Criteria for inclusion in the plan or list||All the steps of a project||Just those that are crucial or often forgotten|
|Ownership||Each task usually has one accountable party||Encourages a team mentality with everyone able to identify problems|
|Duration||Typically months or years||Less than 3 minutes to perform in most cases|
|Presentation format||Large document, often with pages of text and visual display of information such as a Gantt chart||A succinct, plain text-based list (though sometimes multiple checklists can be grouped together into large documents)|
|Creation process||Often derived from extensive estimates and pre-planning, will be updated for key changes||Iteratively tested and refined over time – a living document|
|Roles/Industries using||Large variety||Primarily airline pilots and surgeons – some growth into fields such as finance|
The book also notes that the value of checklists within the airline industry are partly the result of formalizing learnings from the extensive post-mortems the industry performs after any accident, and that a signficant side-benefit of checklists are to empower the team. Typically the pilot on a plane, or the surgeon in an operating theater may not be challenged by others in some situations and cultures, whereas the checklist creates a vehicle for this to happen.
I should also note that the book is pretty gruesome, there are operating table accidents and airline crashes (including the recent Hudson River miracle landing) described at a level of detail that will be too graphic for some. Still, it is a provocative and well-researched book with relevant implications for certain aspects of project management, and definitely for any aspect of process management. You can order it here on Amazon if it’s of interest.