Check Mate

Michael Flack

WHEN I WAS IN THE Navy, the checklist was a way of life. Everything from a radiation leak to starting an air compressor required one. In emergency situations like flooding, you were expected to take memorized “immediate actions,” and then use a checklist to ensure all the actions were accomplished. For more routine procedures, you would follow the checklist line by line—deviations were not allowed.

While this wasn’t conducive to a creative working environment, it was a safe and efficient one. It’s important to note that these checklists were not followed blindly. Everyone involved needed to completely understand the theory behind each step.

If a step didn’t make sense in the current situation, work was stopped until the issue could be resolved. Ever since the Navy acquired the USS Holland in 1900, this process has allowed the experience, training and knowledge of every submariner to be reflected in every checklist—and therefore to be accessible to even the most junior personnel. My worth as an officer was judged in large part by how well I understood the checklists and how well I used them.

When I joined Exxon Mobil, I quickly found out that my experience using checklists was not particularly valued. For many years, I worked in an operations role, coordinating the transportation of petroleum products throughout the world. I developed numerous checklists to help track vessels, create schedules and provide training to new personnel.

When mistakes were made and we learned from the experience, I would revise my checklists. They were also useful when I went on vacation, as I could easily get my replacement up to speed on every vessel, shipment and schedule by reviewing the appropriate checklist.

I also annotated each checklist to help track unusual requirements and to provide a hard copy of all the great things I did. This came in handy during annual performance reviews.

I tried to get colleagues and managers to embrace the checklist philosophy, but I completely failed. As soon as they saw one, I could see the glaze appear in their eyes or—worse—the smirk appear on their faces.

Generally, when I returned from vacation, the checklists I had reviewed with my relief were on my desk exactly where I left them, unchanged and unread. Now retired, I think about what I might have done better to get buy-in.

This all came back to me recently while reading the book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande. The author is a surgeon who created basic checklists used worldwide that drastically reduced surgical complications and deaths. He did extensive research on checklists from the aviation, construction and even finance industry.

One of the more compelling stories in the book details how a checklist played a critical role in Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s successful ditching of Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009. Dr. Gawande also reveals the difficulties he had getting surgeons to understand the benefits of checklists—and then to actually use them. That made me feel much better about my failure at Exxon Mobil.

I have used a checklist in the past when doing my taxes. It ensured that I reviewed certain items that directly affected my specific tax situation—like that darn foreign tax credit. It also allowed me a place to make notes for the following year. After I filed my taxes, I would update the checklist with what I learned and anything I needed to review the next year.

Over the past few years, I stopped using my tax checklist. I have no idea why. This year, I resolved to get my old tax checklist out of mothballs, update it well before tax time and put it back into use. I’ve also created a list of other potential checklists: prepping the house prior to long-term travel, annual auto maintenance, annual home maintenance, annual financial review and annual health care.

Still not convinced of the value of checklists? Don’t take my word for it. As Charlie Munger, the longtime vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, notes, “No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use a checklist.”

Michael Flack blogs at He’s a former naval officer and 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Now retired, Mike enjoys traveling, blogging and spreadsheets. Check out his earlier articles.

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