“Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating,” writes surgeon Atul Gawande in the introduction to his latest book. Fortunately for us, Gawande—a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the best-sellers “Better” and “Complications”—has a simple strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies. Gawande goes on to advocate for the lowly checklist, demonstrating both what it can and can’t do, and revealing how it can help bring about improvements in virtually any endeavor.
Obviously, checklists are not a panacea, and require a certain amount of discipline to create and use on a day-in day-out basis. But as Gawande demonstrates, many businesses already make extensive use of checklists—aviation and construction, for example—and to great effect. At the same time, the author makes clear that other industries—including his own, medicine—would stand to benefit from more extensive use of this simple device. In fact, the most compelling example in the book chronicles the development of a surgical checklist that reduced deaths and complications by more than one-third at eight hospitals around the world—and did so at virtually no cost.
The best thing about the book, however, is its potential to inspire readers to experiment with creating their own checklists. I have to admit, after reading “The Checklist Manifesto,” I found myself making a list and checking it twice.