About a year ago I heard a podcast interview with a surgeon who was searching for a way to prevent illnesses, often fatal, that were a by-product of surgery. He wrote a book about his search and discovery. Atul Gawande is the surgeon, and his book “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” published by Metropolitan Press, is an entertaining read. It is also persuasive about finding better ways to work.

He delves into how pilots discovered checklists to help them fly complex aircraft—beginning in 1935. If you’ve heard either of the pilots of USAir Flight 1549 talk about the experience—Sullenberger and Skiles—you know that the hero was training and checklists as much as the men who were at the controls. We’ve discovered that the Air France plane that plummeted into the Atlantic was the victim of pilots who were confused and didn’t go to their book of checklists.

Gawande studied many other professions who create and use checklists. Construction project managers use two types of checklists. One is a list of tasks that must be accomplished before another task can start. The other is a list of people who must be included in the conversation when things go wrong.

He made a couple of key discoveries when applying the checklist idea to operating rooms. First, the checklist cannot be comprehensive. Second, its success depends upon teamwork and collaboration. When you are in a situation, your training must take precedence. The checklist cannot replace that. He discovered that what must happen is that there must be pause points where someone reviews the checklist, which is composed of just a few critical actions, and announces that everything is accomplished to that point that should be—e.g. the surgeon washed his hands or the antiseptic was applied. So both the list itself and the teamwork are critical.

I wonder how this would work in production and manufacturing operations. Dave Gehman has written an article for Automation World (soon to be on the Web) that discusses new ways to display information for operators. About a month later Jim Koelsch will explore workflow tools. But what if there were a simple, tabbed manual that contained short checklists for operators or engineers to help them assure critical operations are performed in any abnormal situation?

I strongly suggest you read the book, then that you save it for reference. Then figure out where to use the ideas.

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