Friday, January 15, 2010

Simple checklists and the B-17 moment

In a recent TV interview, physician Dr. Atul Gawande told this short story that he calls the "B-17 moment:": The B-17 was commissioned by the Army as a new strategic bomber in the mid-1930's. In its day, it was a hugh breakthrough in operational capability, but it was enormously more complex to fly than any previous airplane.

Early on, an accident in a test vehicle led Boeing, the plane's developer, to implement pre-flight checklists. [Imagine that!] Millions of miles were subsequently flown without incident due to pre-flight pilot error.

Dr. Atul Gawande has given new insight to this decades-old idea--checklists--in his book The Checklist Manifesto: how to get things right.  Gawande cites many examples where really complex procedures with relatively high error rates were made more error-free by the simple expediency of a checklist.  And not a very complicated checklist. In fact, the good doctor argues that only the mission critical itrems really need to be on the checklist.

That is certainly an idea that resonates with quality project management.  In an earlier blog, I have discussed extreme risk management, and specifically the Apollo 13 incident.  Anyone who seen the movie or read about what went on knows that checklists played a lifesaving role. 

And the more stressful the situation, the more the checklist is needed.  In his 2009 book "What the Dog Saw", Malcom Gladwell has collected a number of short stories, among them a story about how choking is different from panic. 

In Gladwell's description, a choke happens when an expert falls back from a semi-automatic plane to a place where they have to think through the steps--and in doing so, they miss the natural rhythm that made them expert.  Panic, on the other hand, is where fully trained individuals, under duress, lose touch with reality and thereby lose touch with their training.  In both cases, a checklist might help if available.  It certainly prevented panic on Apollo 13--they hung to their training!

As project managers, we understand rhythm--if you're agile, think time boxes!  A check list here and there is a pretty good thing.  Don't object if your governance council asks you about yours.

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Photo credit for Malcom Gladwell: