Are Checklists worth the effort? The Checklist and the Group Project

I don’t know about you, but I am the type of person that likes to get things quickly and not spend a lot of time debating or arguing. Case in point, whenever I go shopping I tend to buy things quickly with the goal of getting out of the store as soon as possible. This usually results in my forgetting to purchase a few items or my buying something which is overpriced or doesn’t fit right.

I have realized, the hard way, that whenever I spend a few moments and make a list of things I need to buy my shopping experience is greatly enhanced. When I use a checklist I tend to find what I need faster and almost never have to go back to the grocery store to buy things I had forgotten to earlier. The idea is that writing down what you need to do actually helps you to do it. This concept can be applied to a group project.

The act of writing down something seems to enhance its importance at the same time as helping us remember what to do. Daniel Boorman of Boeing Airplanes has written about the importance of checklists in the operation of commercial Boeing aircraft. According to Boorman, ‘In five years of service …the tool [checklists] has consistently found to prevent errors’ . Furthermore, noted surgeon and author Atul Gawande has written an article (which is a must read) that has morphed into a book (called ‘The Checklist Manifesto) that really addresses the need for simple checklists in complex places like an intensive care unit. Gawande discusses situations where hospital staffs have been able to treat severely injured people in ICUs, where time and process are extremely important, by using checklists. The checklist in this case is a way of ensuring that all the necessary steps have been followed and that the correct process is being implemented.

To extend the point, Gawande discusses the work of Peter Pronovost who has successfully implemented the use of checklists in hospitals around the world. Pronovost’s work has shown that checklists have reduced the incidence of preventable complications such as infection. By following a simple checklist, doctors and nurses discovered that they were routinely skipping steps in accepted medical practices. The reason wasn’t necessarily because they were poorly trained or lazy, but simply that in the confusion of the moment that they forgot. Furthermore, as was the case at Sinai-Grace hospital in Michigan, the necessary supplies such as certain soaps and gowns weren’t usually available. Hence this was an issue of ensuring that the right steps were documented and could be followed.
From this work I think we can dispel a couple of myths about the use of checklists which are that they’re only for the chronically forgetful or stupid. As we’ve seen, even doctors, nurses and pilots can skip crucial steps so we can rule out forgetfulness and stupidity. Rather I would suggest that checklists act as both reminders and enforcers. They remind us of the sometimes mundane and they enforce a systematic approach.

Working in group projects also requires a systematic approach in which following certain steps can greatly help your group. At (a free site [still in development] for managing group projects) we supply users with a checklist which breaks down a project into 4 phases. The first phase is called ‘Pre-Project’ and asks questions concerning how you will organize your group, if everyone knows the objective of the project and if misunderstandings are being taken care. These are all important steps to think about before you start working on your project. The next phase of the project is called ‘Project Proposal’. This is where your group will start to organize specifically how it wants to tackle the project. It involves making sure you have had an initial meeting, written up a project outline, chosen a project coordinator and so on. The third phase is called ‘Work breakdown’ and it involves making sure that everyone in the group is communicating about their tasks and milestones. The final phase is called ‘Project Wrap-up’ where the project is near completion and everyone should make sure that all the assigned tasks have been completed, the project has been reviewed and a lessons learned document has been filled out.

Following a process when it comes to working on projects is essential and the checklist is one powerful way of ensuring that everything gets done.

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Tags: checklists, efficiency, gawande, groups, productivity, projects, systematic


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