The humble checklist

In the documentation department at Macromedia, and then Adobe, we struggled with the increasing complexity of writer tasks. Writers were being asked to handle more technical details, and their jobs began to include tasks previously relegated to production experts. As authoring tools became more powerful and complex, there were more and more things to remember to do—and often, the omission of a very simple task could have serious consequences. One document made it into a Japanese help system with an entire section in English, because it hadn’t been tagged correctly and therefore never got to Localization to be translated. And that’s just one small example.

Increasingly, other fields of endeavor encounter the same problem. While errors in software help system documentation won’t result in the loss of life, as they might in fields like medicine, aviation, and construction, we found assistance in the same unlikely place: the humble checklist.

As Atul Gawande explains in a most eloquent and entertaining manner in The Checklist Manifesto, this seemingly modest aid can help us harness the complexity and sophistication of most any modern job, from running a high-end restaurant kitchen to managing investment funds.

Gawande is a surgeon, so many of his stories about checklists involve medicine. He relates how the use of checklists in ICUs dramatically decreased the most common danger there, infections. And he was involved in a highly successful World Health Organization project that showed how checklists could make surgery safer in diverse hospitals around the world. But as he’s become more attuned to checklists, he realizes that we use them almost everywhere, even when we don’t consciously think we are. Do you ever follow a recipe, or write a list of items you need to buy to follow a recipe? Then you’re using a checklist. Ever try to assemble a piece of furniture from Ikea? A checklist might work better than their cryptic drawings. Have you ever planned a wedding? Followed software help system instructions? Or just maintained a To Do list? If so, you’re already using checklists.

Most modern professional jobs are even more complex than assembling Ikea furniture. Because of this, checklists have some limitations. They can help with simple problems, those with a few basic techniques and something like a recipe that can be followed repeatedly. Even many of the steps done to prevent infection in an ICU are simple, such as placing sterile drapes over the patient—they’re just easy to forget or overlook. Less clear is how checklists can help with complex problems, which might be difficult to repeat, encounter frequent unexpected issues, and have unpredictable outcomes.

The answer to this is that the checklist contain a step, or several steps at key junctures in the process, for communication. In surgery, for example, it’s important that the surgical staff introduce themselves, which helps solidify the team, and check in about any special issues in the case that could lead to problems, such as a patient’s allergies. In construction, where highly trained specialists are responsible for each aspect of the job, it’s not only important for each of these individuals to ensure they’ve completed each step of their job—it’s crucial for all involved to communicate regularly. So in a large construction project, there are set times for all the specialized experts to check in and discuss each phase of the project. Such complex undertakings require this kind of checklist step to coordinate everyone’s efforts.

Our documentation projects at Adobe are more complex than assembling Ikea furniture and yet not quite as complicated or requiring quite as much training as performing surgery or building skyscrapers. But we simply could not do our work without frequent communication. Whether this communication is dictated by a checklist or happens routinely at weekly meetings depends on the task. Some of our checklists contain steps for communicating specific information to specific people at a certain time in the project. Coordination among a group happens at meetings and over e-mail. And each project has a detailed schedule, another kind of checklist, to ensure that all the necessary tasks happen when they should—including completing each checklist.

Another limitation of checklists can be flaws in their design. In addition to incorporating steps for communication, it’s key to keep checklists short and ensure they contain only the most important steps. To verify that a checklist has the correct steps, it’s crucial to test it in the real world and revise it as needed. Checklists will fail if simply dictated from above; in a complex, unpredictable situation in which no one person can hold all the knowledge needed, room has to be allowed for adaptation.

In spite of the clear value of checklists (if you don’t believe me, just read the book), the biggest hurdle to their adoption seems to be resistance from people who either think they’re a waste of time or are insulted by being asked to do them. Gawande himself says he would have resisted their use had he not felt obligated to ensure the checklists he designed really worked—and of course, he didn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.

In my group at Adobe I’ve been a major proponent of checklists and even worked with another team to create a checklist application that my whole department can use. We now have checklists not just for the writers but for just about every function in our group. Some of us embrace the checklists, because they let us focus on what’s more interesting and challenging in our jobs while ensuring we don’t forget what Gawande calls the “stupid but critical stuff.” Others just can’t seem to get beyond feeling insulted or thinking the checklists aren’t important. But when a chunk of text doesn’t appear in the help system because someone forgot to tag it correctly, that person might wish they’d had a checklist step to remind them to check for the tag. If someone forgets the step of informing the Localization department about the correct groups for translation memory, they could fail to reuse already translated text and spend thousands of dollars retranslating the same content.

Perhaps it’s time to review our checklists again, to ensure that they follow all the rules for a good checklist and haven’t become ossified. When it comes to checklists, a project manager’s work is never done.

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