A Little Bit of Nothing

Ramblings of a madman

Are Checklists Bad?

Checklists. Just the word warms the hearts of safety officers around the world. Who doesn’t love a clean concise list of things to do with those inviting little square boxes just waiting for a pen to delicately mark the items as complete?

Before you go on a trip:

  • Filled the car with gas? Check!
  • Went to the bathroom so we don’t have to stop in 3 minutes? Check!
  • Are you SURE?….. gimme a minute….. Check!
  • Packed some awesome snacks? Check!

That’s great and all but as I see it checklists have three problems when they start popping up beyond your daily chore list:

  1. Nobody cares
  2. Nobody understands
  3. People will game

Nobody Cares

It is not uncommon for people in business to get handed a list of items to do when they work through process X.

In a previous workplace there were issues with the process of checking in code having to do with some brittle system we were using at the time. A checklist of commonly missed tasks was compiled and distributed through to all of the developers. The development processes were also changed so that each developer was required to go through the checklist every time they checked code in.

As the checklist was reviewed with the developers you could almost feel the eyes rolling. The list was not long but it was a little tedious and the developers felt that each item was so obvious and simple that we were almost insulted that someone would present us with a little worksheet that we were supposed to work through every time we submitted code. Ironically, if you asked any one of those developers if they had made a mistake that was listed on the list we would each have to admit that we had.

Although the checklist was thorough and everyone could admit that it would have helped them at some point, every copy of that checklist was dutifully pinned to a cubicle wall and completely ignored. Nobody cared about the list because they felt that they already knew how to do everything listed or they thought it was too tedious to go through the process of performing the tasks listed. The intent of the list was to fix some very real problems but nobody cared.

Nobody Understands

Checklists have their place and are a great way to make sure that you take care of small items that are clearly defined. Airline pilots have all sorts of neat little checklists that keep the planes in the sky. The tricky bit is the clearly defined part.

Let’s return to the pre-vacation list from the previous section:

  • Filled the car with gas? Check!
  • Went to the bathroom so we don’t have to stop in 3 minutes? Check!
  • Are you SURE?….. gimme a minute….. Check!
  • Packed some awesome snacks? Check!

Do you notice anything ambiguous? Dollars to donuts this checklist will give you warm fuzzy feelings as your pull out of the driveway until the crushing moment when little Jimmy asks for his apple slices and peanut butter. You DID pack little Jimmy’s apple slices and peanut butter right?…. RIGHT?!?

How could you miss the apple slices? You had a checklist! And you even went through and checked it!

Checklists tend to turn off the free thinking part of the brain. In fact, that is kind of the point and why things like inspections use them. Regulatory checklists tend to be a list of rules. If the things being inspected follows the rules then it gets a check. Pretty simple stuff.

Checklists like the vacation list above are not like a regulatory checklist. They are created to serve as reminders to someone to do something more complex than what is actually listed. I find that when faced with a checklist people (including myself) tend to stop thinking about the intent of what is on that list and get focused on getting to make the checkmark. I’m sure when you wrote on the list ‘Pack awesome snacks’ you thought that you would go back and consider all the travelers in your packing, but when you got to actually packing you instead pack some walnuts and thought to yourself ‘Walnuts are pretty damn awesome. Checkity-check-check-check!’

The list failed because the intent gets lost in the single minded focus of task completion.

People Will Game

Checklist based performance analysis is one of the best ways I’ve seen to get people to game a system rather than actually doing better at whatever is being analyzed.

This is almost a conscious version of people ignoring the intent of checklist items in the blind draw to get a check mark. The big difference is that now people are extrinsically motivated to become single mindedly focussed on getting things checked off in the fastest, easiest and probably most ineffectual way possible.

All I can say is don’t do this and try to stay out of situations where people do it to you.

So What?

If you work anywhere for long enough you will likely either be handed an exciting new checklist to work through in your job or be tempted to make such a document yourself because people keep making mistakes with some process.

I believe that checklists should be avoided as a way to make sure people are doing the things you want them to do. They will be ignored or gamed most of the time and whoever is giving out the list is likely to be resented for their trouble.

The intent of lists as a process technique makes sense. You have a list of things you want the process to accomplish.

If the list is really simple and tedious then automate it. Computers are really good at doing really tedious stuff so that the humans can eat jellybeans and worry about difficult problems. Computers won’t get bored or distracted half way through and they will probably (hopefully?) do the task much faster.

If the list items are more complicated than a simple script will allow and/or requires human involvement then reformat your process to an activity of some sort rather than a checklist. I have to flesh out this idea but I think in many cases you can rethink what you are trying to do away from a list. Maybe this is just manipulative tap dancing but I think people will probably respond better.

Also, focus in getting people to understand why it is important to do these tasks. If you can get buy in on the why then you will get better involvement in the how. In many cases you will not only get better coverage of your items but you will probably get better quality of work completed. Heck, in explaining the why you might even realize you don’t have to do that task in the first place!