Checklists are important

April 11, 2014 

"Good checklists, on the other hand are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything -- a checklist cannot fly a plane. Good checklists are, above all, practical." ~ Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

After I graduated from Georgia Tech, I had to join the Air Force Reserve or be drafted into another branch of the military. During the Vietnam War, once you got through college, no employer would touch you as they knew you were going to get drafted soon after graduation.

I stayed in the Reserve as an enlisted man for about three years and then was lucky enough to get a direct commission as a second lieutenant. As an officer in a unit that flew patients from battle fronts to hospitals or between hospitals, our jobs were complicated and hectic. However, the government had devised special checklists that ensured our success as long as we followed them.

Like we did then, countless others use checklists to guarantee tasks are completed correctly. Commercial airline pilots are just one of many examples.

I have spent many hours on airplanes. I like to sit as close to the front of the plane as I can, especially if I have to make connections. The pilots leave the cockpit door open until takeoff, and from my seat, I can watch them go through checklist after checklist to make certain the plane is safe and sound to fly to the next stop.

Just as these pilots rely on checklists, every organization should be using checklists to ensure important goals and objec

tives are accomplished.

What I am talking about here is not those things we do every day as a matter of routine. Rather, I am talking about those challenging things we have to do periodically. Letting an employee go, for example. This is not something we have to do often, but there are many things to be considered -- among them, determining remaining salary owed, recovering company possessions and paying out vacation time accrued. A checklist helps make certain none of these important tasks are forgotten.

Checklists are helpful when you are outsourcing services. A checklist here would ensure the right approvals are obtained, costs are competitive and due diligence is performed on the company you are considering.

For a final example, it is important to have a checklist for the hiring process. This checklist could cover the job description, advertising for the position, salary, criteria for evaluating potential candidates and the interviewing process.

Over the years, I have devised countless numbers of checklists to keep my staff running efficiently. What I have found is that effective checklists specify every task that must be accomplished without skipping any significant details.

For me, checklists alleviate worries that I or one of my associates might forget something critical. I, personally, would rather see more checklists and fewer process and procedure manuals.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. Reach him at

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