Book Review – The Checklist Manifesto

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:

  Project Plan Checklist
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.

One response to “Book Review – The Checklist Manifesto

  1. Pingback: 5 Things Project Managers Can Learn From Netflix | Strategic PPM

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