Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lists That Save Lives

Once upon a time, I was told by a colleague that there was no need for those stylebooks and lists that I worked hard to prepare for the Women's Communications Office back at Arkansas, and that going forward, there would not be any such "bibles." They were seen as restrictive. We should be more flexible. Standards were not vogue any more. Absolutes were bad.

Fast forward to today's Prof Hacker column by Natalie Houston entitled Why Lists Work. Ah, Natalie, you had me at the headline.

The essay is about surgeon Atul Gawande's new book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, and guess what? All those checklists and things that I compiled for the Lady'Back teams? If you're a surgeon, they save lives. Same if you're a pilot. Or any high risk, high stress environment worker -- oh, let's say, like a communications professional.

Houston writes in her blog:

Routine tasks that you perform every day can become blurred in your memory because they are so similar day to day. These mundane tasks can still benefit from a checklist, if the steps of the task are important enough that you want to make sure they won’t be omitted.

And this was what the good Dr. Gawande discovered in his own work and in talking to engineers at Boeing. He opens, however, with a pair of gut wrenching examples of near death by surgeons when one detail -- one thing that might have been captured in a checklist -- was missed.

Gawande talks a good bit about failure, somewhat refreshing from a profession that we see as God-complexed.

"The reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us."

I've read through the book now and he has one more side note -- a brutal one sentence gut shot:

"That's why the traditional solution in most professions has not been to punish failure but instead to encourage more experience and training."

Oh. What he said.

The only thing more focusing than a good checklist: responsibility.

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