The checklist manifesto: The Idea

We go back to our scheduled reading. This week is chapter number 4: the Idea.

This chapter continues and develops an idea anticipated in the former chapter: do checklist make sense beyond the more basic use in routinary and repetitive tasks, in order to be sure that everything that needs to be done has been done? The answer is a clear yes.

The author makes more clear here the use of checklists when a problem cannot be sold in a centralized system by needs to distribute power so the people that can actually do something do it without having to ask permission to any central authority. He uses the Hurricane Katrina disaster to indicate how catastrophic can be sometimes to stick to a centralized model for dealing with an emergency. It is a fascinating text, with even some epic moments, like when a Wall-Mart manager enters with a bulldozer in the supermarket’s pharmacy in order to give drugs to hospitals in need.

This chapter made me think of classical text on collective creation: The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond, in which he defends to ways of creating collectively, the centralized hierarchical way of a catedral (in the times of the Master Builder)  and the decentralized, horizontal way of the bazaar. Then he links it to two ways of building operating systems: proprietary ones like Windows or Apple’s or free ones, like linux. I  remember reading the text, finding it very interesting, and wanting to know how something like Linux and its decentralized way of bulding is possible in the details. Now, thanks to this chapter I realized the importance of checklists in the process.

Next, Gawande studies another completely different beast, a restaurant, and shows us how they are also partially decentralized systems based on checklists, from the recipe to the client ticket. I specially liked this example, as it shows how you can use something akin to a checklist, but there is not the formal checking of items as you go along. A recipe is a perfect example of such an informal checklist, and helps you to realize how common they are, after all.

Interestingly, a PhD student of mine and myself are now studying how a Michelin 1 star restaurant is organized day by day and we have also found checklists everywhere. The chef told us that he got the idea while visiting a restaurant in the US and saw how they were using checklists for everything.



2 thoughts on “The checklist manifesto: The Idea

  1. Thank you, David, for the summary of the chapter and your interesting contributions to the discussion. Sorry for my delay in joining it.

    I find the Katrina-Wal-Mart story absolutely fascinating and particularly those words by CEO Lee Scott which show both courage and wisdom:

    A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decisions that you can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing.

    Indeed, the central idea of the chapter is that to cope with complexity you need to give people freedom to act while keeping them accountable for the results of their actions and to force them to follow certain communication rules and channels. It is a far reaching idea.

    By the way, I haven’t read the Cathedral and the Bazaar, do you recommend it? Is it not too centered in software production?

    That work of you and your student on restaurant procedures sounds very interesting. I hope that we will know more about it in the future before it ends up (as usually happens) in the cemetery of unread PhD dissertations.

  2. I haven’t read the whole book of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, just the original paper. I’d say that the paper is worth reading the first parts, which is the general introduction to his idea. Now we all have heard in some form of other the main idea, so it might sound obvious, but the day it was published it made a lot of us to think about how teams are supposed to work together. The rest of the paper -when it starts to get technical- is not that interesting.

    I’ll keep you posted on what we find while studying organization and knowledge dissemination in restaurants!

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