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4 myths about task checklists

Søren Pommer
Last updated on 22/03/2024

A task checklist is a simple, yet powerful tool to help us to remember tasks. They are used everywhere but they are not exactly loved. This article seeks to debunk four myths about checklists. Read it to see how you may benefit from using checklists in many more places than you think.

Task checklists help us to apply what we already know

Why do we need a task checklists in the first place? In his book “The Checklist Manifesto” Atula Gawande divides our failures into two categories:

  • Ignorance. We fail because of things we don’t know yet. There are diseases we don’t know how to cure and products we can’t build. We’re working on it and this is ok.
  • Ineptitude. We fail because we fail to use the knowledge we have. In these cases, we have the knowledge but we fail to apply it correctly.

One hundred years ago we largely failed because of ignorance. Today we largely fail because of ineptitude. The knowledge is there but we simply fail to apply it correctly. The reason is that our lives have become extremely complex. So much knowledge to digest and so little time. It is understandable but it doesn’t help our colleagues, patients, passengers or co-workers.

“The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably.” 

This is where task checklists can help us.Task checklists are the answer since they give us a way to transfer what we know as a group to a specific work situation.

So why are they not used more? This is where four myths hold us back.

Myth #1: “I am the expert, so I do right it every time.”

A study in hospitals showed that an average patient requires 178 individual actions per day, ranging from administering a drug to more complex procedures. Only 1% of cases resulted in an error. 1% may not sound like much but it is an average of two errors per day with every patient! Still, in many hospitals, the chief physician is considered to be a demigod with great knowledge and authority. Yet, to “err is human”, even for the most highly trained of us. Atul Gawande puts it this way:

“Studies have shown that at least 30 percent of patients with stroke receive incomplete or inappropriate care from their doctors. Getting the steps right is proving brutally hard, even if you know them.”

Myth #2: “My work area changes all the time, so checklists will not work.”

Managers in service industries often tell me that their area is changing too much to make task checklists practical. To this, I say that your checklist merely should represent your current best practice. It can be updated as you learn and remember new tasks to include.

A consulting company regularly onboard new clients. Assignments, people and work styles vary from client to client. Many tasks stay the same:

  • The consultants must prepare for a kickoff meeting,
  • they need to avoid asking for information they already have and
  • they must write minutes and
  • they must send them to the client quickly afterwards.

Add these checkpoints in the right sequence, make sure they’re followed and the clients will immediately benefit from an experience with fewer errors and annoyances.

Myth #3: “Checklists make my work less fun.”

A checklist does focus and guide our actions. That’s the point. This means less thinking and more doing. Some people fear that this will make their work less fun. In fact, it’s the opposite.

While using a checklist does make your work more repetitive and less intuitive it saves you both time and mental energy. Getting it right the first time means that you don’t have to spend even more time correcting mistakes or mental energy by making excuses to your boss or customer. Instead, you save time and feel more at ease that you’re working the right way. This frees up your time and mental resources for other things. In other words, the share of your time that is spent on tedious, routine tasks may be reduced so your overall workday becomes more fun.

Think of the waiter who doesn’t have to remember all the little details necessary to opening the café. He can instead spend his time servicing the first guests (although they may not be much fun…)

Myth #4: “This is not important enough for a checklist.”

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” as the saying goes. So why don’t we have more checklists? The reason may be the overhead required to creating and sharing them creating and sharing. They need to be collaborative so that more people can work together and combine their specialities around complex procedures. Paper is not good for this.

There is no excuse for failure if you know how to do it right

So, there really is no excuse for failure if we know how to do better. With checklists, we can create the tools that reduce failure rates and help us to deal with the complexity of modern life. A simple checklist is a start and better than no checklist at all.

In my next blog post, I will share some learning on how to use checklists within complex processes. In the meantime have a look at how checklists have reduced errors in surgery:

Further resources on checklists:

Frequently Asked Questions

How can one effectively integrate checklists into their day-to-day business operations?

You can incorporate checklists into business operations by identifying regular tasks that need monitoring. Break them into easy steps and prioritize. Get your team involved in its creation, develop accountability, and regularly review for updates.

Are there any specific industries or job roles where the use of checklists has proven to be more beneficial?

Industries that can greatly benefit from checklists include healthcare, aviation, and construction. Roles like project managers and quality control inspectors also find checklists helpful in overseeing all necessary tasks.

What are some of the challenges one might face when implementing checklists and how can they be overcome?

Challenges in implementing checklists can arise due to lack of team involvement and accountability. Overcoming these obstacles involves proper training, regular review, and encouraging feedback.

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