The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Guwande

This book is a curious attempt at cross pollinating Aristotlean virtue theory with efficiency thinking.

It is also a much better read than pretty much any popular science I’ve read since the death of Stephen Jay Gould.

It is also probably more profitable for you to read this book than attend a whole conference on leadership theory.

Plus, it is a big public intellectual utterly justifying my archaic practice of keeping a little folded piece of paper in my back pocket and renewing it every Monday morning.

To-do list technology

As you can see, I rely on only the most cutting edge of “apps” to make me as effective as I am. I print 50 pieces of paper some time after New Year’s Eve and that is me sorted for the year. I also keep ring binders with the last four years of my inane to-do lists in case it is of critical importance I know which day I recycled bottles in the third week of March 2008.

Guwande offers a rough-and-ready but very usefull categorisation of problems. They are either:

  • Simple
  • Complicated
  • Complex
  • Simple problems are like baking butterfly cakes: we know how to solve the problem, the problem involves the mastery of only basic skills and the problem varies little.

    Complicated problems are like rocket science challenges that involve many simple problems that must be orchestrated in the correct order without a solidly set template for success although with the potential for evolving effectiveness.

    Finally complex problems are like raising a child. Success is hard to ascertain. It is impossible to abstract out a set of simple problems or even break it into complicated problems. The challenge is constantly new with each iteration. It is possible, it just isn’t systematisable.

    I think this theory alone is worth the reading of the book.

    His claim is that simple checklists serve two mutually related purposes. Firstly, in their tried and tested development they are a means by which to avoid making stupid mistakes (or making mistakes stupidly in a crisis) and secondly they can foster communication when teams of specialists gather to do a complex job.

    This is important because most of the problems that we face, that involve more steps than the human mind can easily recall (surgery, rocket design, church calendar planning(!)) also involve more than one person. The mythical man-month that computer programmers are familiar with applies whenever specialists gather to do a complex job. Checklists, the examples he most commonly cites are in plane cockpits and surgery theatres, are a means by which to foster the integration of abilities around a common goal that constitutes teamwork as against having a bunch of individuals pursuing their parallel objectives.

    The virtue aspect of this is brought out best of all in his discussion of how different bodies in American life responded to Hurricane Katrina. Weirdly enough, the body who perhaps contributed the most was Walmart. This was in part because they decentralised their response. Over a 100 of their stores were to be affected by the storm. They told managers and assistant managers that they would be forced into making decisions way above their pay scale. In that situation, the Walmart central HQ advised their staff to simply gather as much information as possible before making any decision and to do what is right. This meant in one case, a manager drove through her gutted store in a JCB, emptied the pharmaceutical stores and restocked local hospitals with the drugs and provisions.

    Walmart congratulated her on her leadership skills.

    Aristotle didn’t have paper and ballpoint pens. So he couldn’t have checklists. Imagine if he had such advances at hand. He might have been able to do the laundry, remember the milk, iron his shirt and pick up croissants for the staff meeting. Guwande reminds me that virtue formation can often rely on the most basic habitual practices.

    Your Correspondent, When he was the first to use incommensurability in a haiku, critics hailed it as a miracle