In Defense of Checklists

Written by lewsauder

April 30, 2014


Defense of checklists

A 2009 study from the New England Journal of Medicine showed that when surgeons used a basic checklist prior to a surgical operation, deaths were reduced by almost 50%, and complications due to surgery were reduced by more than a third.

These basic checklists included steps such as verifying the identity of the patient and the type of surgery to be performed, as well as making sure blood was available in case it was needed during surgery.

Pilots go through the same type of checklist before ever flight.

If you have read much from any of my books or blogs, you know that I’m not a big fan of defined processes for project managers. I’ve seen project managers get so caught up in their methodologies, checklists and other processes that they forget that they are supposed to think. Checklists are not the end-all be-all recipe for success.

With that being said, I’m a big user of checklists. I set goals for 100-day increments, and then break them down into 10-day intervals.  Each 10-day interval is broken down to daily to-do lists with prioritized tasks for each day.

So yes, I’m a big planner and list maker. I do a lot of thinking about what I want to accomplish, how I want to get it done, and how I want to break it down into achievable tasks to reach my goals.

Related post: Too Much Process, Not Enough Thought

But every day, I second guess each of the original goals.  I realize that priorities change over time. Maybe what seemed important a month ago, is really not so important.  Maybe external factors changed that have rearranged my priorities. When that happens – and it is quite common – I have the flexibility in my plan to reprioritize tasks, or pull them out completely in order to do what is still important.

For instance, I recently made plans to do some general maintenance work around the house over a weekend. I had checked my daughter’s soccer schedule and my son’s baseball schedule and determined that I had time to do this work. Soon after making those plans, I learned that my daughter’s soccer team scheduled an out-of-town tournament over that weekend. I could have told my daughter that I couldn’t go to her tournament because this maintenance work was already planned, but her soccer tournament was a higher priority for me. I simply changed my plan.

For more information, check out Project Management Planning Considerations.

It has been my observation that people that are hooked on process, set their goals at the beginning, develop their plan, and stick stubbornly to it, regardless of how other factors change.

A good project manager keeps a close eye on the scope of a project. At the beginning of the project, the PM and the business stakeholders define all of the functionality that will be included in the project. The PM then protects that scope like a secret service agent at a presidential appearance. The first site of a user asking for a new column in a report or an additional button on a screen and the project manager sounds the alarms. “That functionality is out of scope.” And my favorite: “If it was so critical for your ability to do business, why didn’t it come up until now?”

Unfortunately, the business world – and life – doesn’t work like that. Important things are realized after decisions and commitments are made. Things that are completely out of your control, change. These changes affect your priorities and, as a result, your plans.

For instance, in the health care industry, a set of codes called ICD-9 (International Classification of Diseases, 9th edition) is used to classify diagnoses for all types of patient encounters. A deadline was set for October 1st of this year to move to the 10th edition (ICD-10), with a more robust set of codes.

On April first of this year, the president signed an act that extends the deadline out to October 1st of 2015. Virtually every organization in the health care industry (hospitals, insurance companies, medical equipment manufacturers, etc.) were elbow-deep in projects to deal with the transition.

The date change resulted in every one of these organizations reviewing and reprioritizing their projects. Some will decided to continue on and finish their work. They’ll be ready early, well before next year’s deadline. Others will put their ICD-10 projects on the back burner and focus their efforts on projects that may have a more direct effect on their bottom line. They will pick up the ICD-10 projects when it becomes a higher priority.

Project managers around the world are dealing with delayed projects and reprioritizing tasks on projects to adjust to the new rule. Tenaciously sticking to their original plans is just not good business.

I can’t imagine getting anything done at work or at home without the planning I do and the checklists I make to remember and prioritize everything I want to do. But checklists need to be made and followed with a healthy dose of thought and flexibility to allow new priorities to be addressed.

Planning and scheduling are critical aspects of managing a project.  It is hard to be successful without them. Just don’t forget to think.

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section.

Copyright 2014 Lew Sauder, Inc.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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