In my previous post I left an open question,

when to follow a checklist and when to make a judgement call

Checklists work fantastically. They ensure the right order of things and that no steps get forgotten. Although, they have a flaw in complex situations. Checklists cannot deal with the unexpected.

Ignoring such an occurrence will likely end in disaster. Project managers who are on a schedule can fall into that trap. Hence they are trained to call a meeting and discuss the seriousness and impact of the unexpected issue. Not in all circumstances are such clearly defined roles a given. And furthermore the project manager is not necessarily the subject matter expert on the unforeseen interference.

All people involved in working on the overall deliverable must have the right and the responsibility to yell out when they witness or are aware of an unforeseen event.

These must result in a discussion with all SMEs involved and their concerns should be addressed. At certain stages in any project such meetings are planned by default. In other circumstances these are checkpoints where unexpected issues are now known and can be evaluated by all stakeholders.

While checklists are task orientated, checkpoints are people orientated. It is vitally important that all team members know their respective domain checklists and contribute this knowledge at the checkpoint.

Let’s take a step back:

  1. We have a team with multiple domain knowledge working on specific problem.
  2. They have completed a similar situation before.
  3. They follow their checklists. Every team member completing a step confirms this on the checklist with a timestamp and signature
  4. One person discovers a discrepancy. He makes a judgement call and calls a checkpoint meeting.
  5. all team members (depending on the team size) take part and possibly further stakeholders are consulted.
  6. all aspects get discussed and evaluated.
  7. the team agrees on a solution.
  8. the checklist gets amended if appropriate
  9. work continues

The above checklist is one scenario “how to deal with the unexpected”. It highlights in step 4 when the focus on tasks moves to people. This can only work when everybody involved knows what their rights and responsibilities are. Seeing a deviation and acting on it are 2 very different things. If your team members are drilled to follow checklists and leave the decision making to you, that team is not fit for complex tasks. It also requires from you to trust your team and empower them to make a decision when something unexpected happens. Don’t underestimate the cultural aspect.

Dr Gawande said in his book, “the nurses thought it wasn’t their place to tell the doctors if they missed a step in the preparations.” Hence they didn’t. Once they were told to do just that it improved the infection rate at an astounding amount!

Checklists are great. Together with checkpoints they are fantastic!


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