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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.

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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 AfterActionReport.info. 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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Debbie Williams
Debbie Williams
4 months ago

I had read the same book years ago! I had an extensive check-list for on-boarding new Team members (and other work processes); worked for a Fortune 500 company. Our Team was considered best-in-class and others asked what our “secret sauce” was. When I shared my check-list(s)…I got the eye-roll, too. Easy to figure out why some teams did well and others did not–key people were lazy and didn’t want to do the work! I retired and I’m sure all my procedures were tossed because I was “old school”! But they will probably pay some millennial who has a TedX video or book big bucks to come back to our organization and tell them exactly the same thing that I was doing for decades! You can’t make this stuff up!

mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago

Debbie Williams, thanks for letting me know that I’m not alone. And thanks for your comments.

OBX9397
OBX9397
4 months ago

I have always heard there are two kinds of people:

  • People who make lists.
  • People who do not make lists.

(It is meant to be humorous, but also provides insight.)

My theory is that there is a high correlation between the members of each group and the members’ willingness to accept mediocrity in their efforts and results.

mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago
Reply to  OBX9397

OBX9397, I guess I’m glad I’ve started making checklists again.

Randy Starks
Randy Starks
4 months ago

Exactly. Today, everyone (mostly) wants to blame someone else for their problems. Checklists are great. I remember the first time I did turnover notes, wrote a beautiful four page document listing all my actions, where they were in the process, whom to call for updates, all the players names and phone numbers listed, the contractor’s contact, phone, and well fax back in the 80s. I came back 18 days later and no one had touched my actions, and no updates on my list. It was the “last” time I wrote extensive notes about my actions for turnover notes. Oh, I had bosses that wanted turnover notes and I abbreviated them (just the facts, Ma’am) and when I supervised I did as well. I just requested a list with pertinent information given to me via email. Gladly out of the rat race since 2016, and don’t miss it.

mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago
Reply to  Randy Starks

Randy Starks, amen brother.

DrLefty
DrLefty
4 months ago

I love this because checking things off a list sparks joy for me, and this post gave me ideas of how I could do even MORE with this.

My husband and (now-grown) kids are NOT that way, and there was a lot of eye-rolling and “chill out, Mom” over the years. Once we took a three-week trip to New York, London, and a couple of stops in Italy. Of course, I did all the organizing, and of course, they all snickered at me as I trotted briskly through airports and train stations to make sure we executed the itinerary.

At the end of that trip, my 16-year-old daughter said to me, “I know we made fun of you—but I also know that if it hadn’t been for you, we certainly would have missed a flight or a train or something.” It was nice to finally get some backhanded appreciation!

However, I think they’re all content to let ME make the lists. They haven’t developed an interest in getting themselves organized. So for my husband’s sake, I hope I don’t get hit by a bus anytime soon…

mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago
Reply to  DrLefty

DrLefty, thanks for your comments. Prior to getting hit by a bus, recommend you have a checklist in place.

Cammer Michael
Cammer Michael
4 months ago

“Everyone involved needed to completely understand the theory behind each step.”
I find this is a huge problem. I train research scientists to use complex microscopes. You’d think scientists would want to understand the technologies they implement, but a majority want pictures fast. This is problematic because it is easy to collect bad images. There are very strict criteria for image quality for quantitative analysis, yet resistance or refusal to read instructions. Even more basic, we have a checklist for turning on the instrument. People routinely complain that they turn the microscope but cannot see an image on the screen. Most of the time this is because they skipped a key wait step between switches 3 and 4. We stress this in training and it is in the checklist.
Interesting, but I am not sure why we are reading about this in a financial newsletter (except for the taxes example as I’ve had an accountant skip breaking out tax free royalty income and lumping it with common dividends). Any ideas how to use checklists to our benefit?

Last edited 4 months ago by Cammer Michael
mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago
Reply to  Cammer Michael

Cammmer Michael, I think the only to get 100% checklist compliance is pain for noncompliance (see Jim Burrows below).

Harold Tynes
Harold Tynes
4 months ago

Gawamde’s book is excellent. I used his ideas in several business roles to improve business processes. They work well in my personal life, too.

mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago
Reply to  Harold Tynes

Harold Tynes, thanks for your reply. Gawamde does a good job making what could be a dry subject quite interesting.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
4 months ago

Great article Michael.
I worked a number of satellite launches, and lots of ongoing operations. We used checklists for everything – inspections, installations, lifting, transportation, …. We always tried to build on previous projects lessons learned. When I think of some of the big issues we encountered on my projects, many were due to someone not following the checklist/procedure.

Will
Will
4 months ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

I think aviation is and was the leader for checklists—–understandably!! The ‘creative’ types, like surgeons, resist the input and ‘dry’ nature of a list. Their loss, and maybe your’s, too. Pity.

mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Rick Connor, building on previous projects is a powerful feature of using checklists. Thanks for your comments.

Jim Burrows
Jim Burrows
4 months ago

Michael,

As a former submarine officer and airline pilot I share your understanding of the value of checklists and also experienced the resistance to their use outside of those two communities. I’ve often wonder why. The only real answer I could every come up with is the immediate and extreme feedback those two environments provide to those who fail to follow the checklist.

Last edited 4 months ago by Jim Burrows
mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Burrows

Hey shipmate! Good point about how the unforgiving environment may be the key.

OldITGuy
OldITGuy
4 months ago

Very good article with which I totally agree. Unfortunately this common aversion to using a checklist seems to also apply more generally to checking any kind of reference material before starting a task. In my own case, I still find myself going off and starting something only later to find some (often online) material that would have made my efforts more efficient and productive. Ugh. Must be human nature. Thanks for the reminder.

mjflack
mjflack
4 months ago
Reply to  OldITGuy

OldITGuy, thanks for the feedback. A little reference is alway useful. Though I spend to much time referencing and not enough doing.

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