Friday, 10 January 2014

The Checklist Manifesto

US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, Ne...

On 15th January 2008, almost exactly six years ago, US Airways flight 1549 took off from la Guardia Airport, New York. As it climbed over the Husdon River, the Airbus flew through a flock of Canadian geese and simultaneously lost power to both engines. The resulting 'Miracle on the Hudson', as the press named the incident, passed into aviation history.

Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger  was universally hailed as a hero for performing a textbook ditching under terrifying circumstances, with no lives lost. Interestingly, Captain Sullenberger attributes the success to adherence mainly to tried and tested emergency procedures, ie a checklist of the critical things to focus on. Whilst this was dismissed as a hero's reserve, 'The Checklist Manifesto' suggests, without detracting from what was a remarkable achievement, that there is a lot of truth to this. 

The author, surgeon Atul Gawande, puts an eloquent and engaging argument for checklists; not to be ticked, but to stimulate communication. For example, a surgical team introducing themselves at the start of an operation making them a 'team'. This short book is full of convincing anecdotes from aviation, surgery and finance - Gawande suggests convincingly that almost any field can benefit from the application of a carefully considered checklist. 

We live and work in an increasingly complex world, full of distractions, where knowing what to focus on is difficult. When it comes to 'managing knowledge', perhaps checklists have a role to play in freeing-up cognitive capacity, for example tacit knowledge exchange - the kind of stuff that you couldn't and wouldn't put in a checklist.

The Checklist Manifesto is hugely thought-provoking for such an apparently simple concept. Not just for what how much more effective a well considered and tested checklist can make us, but for how we can use them to master complexity and our increasingly information-overloaded lives. 

Next time you get on a plane, think about the flight crew diligently going through their pre-flight checklist, despite having done the same thing hundreds of times. Then take a good look at that card in the seat back pocket. Both checklists have been proven to save your life.

 Photo credit: Wikipedia
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