Business Matters: Without a “Stupid Little Checklist”

Without a “stupid little checklist”* I launched a webinar without reducing my screen resolution, and participants could only see half of my screen. Later that week, I sent an invoice with a mistake in it, because I didn’t have a checklist to remind me to recalculate each line item. And finally, without a checklist to direct my editing, I missed some glaring errors in a document that I was editing for my best-paying client.

All these errors might compromise my credibility, but at least the consequences don’t affect life and death, right? Maybe. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, shows how checklists save lives in hospital surgical units; surgeons and nurses at Johns Hopkins used checklists for one year in 2001 and saw a drop in the ten-day line infection rate from 11 percent to zero. An extended test was estimated to have prevented 43 infections and 8 deaths, saving $2 million in costs (p. 39).

Since Gawande assumes that anything could go wrong and anything could be missed, he extends his discussion of the benefits of checklists to aviation and construction. And you, my fellow technical communicators, will instantly recognize what Gawande calls “checklists”: they are procedures! For us, this is Tech Writing 101.

Why do checklists work so well in so many industries? “Checklists seem able to defend anyone, even the experienced, against failure in many more tasks than we realized,” Gawande writes (p. 44). But, he points out, many believe that their jobs are just too complicated to be reduced to a checklist.

Not me! As a result of my webinar mistake, I created a checklist/procedure for producing my webinars. I just can’t trust my memory, especially with routine and boring parts of my business. (The actual teaching of webinars is exciting to me, but I’d prefer to race through the mundane technical steps. You can learn more about producing webinars by attending my session “Webinar School” at the Summit on Wednesday, 21 May.) If I carefully check off everything on my list, I end up looking and feeling more professional.

For those who own and operate a business, check out The Checklist Manifesto and give serious thought to documenting your own operations with checklists/procedures to increase your professionalism and save a lot of rework. Of course, creating checklists takes time—but as we all know, “Pay now or pay later!” Technical writers know this in our day jobs or contracts: It’s in our DNA, but I’m not sure the knowledge migrates to our personal and businesses lives. On the other hand, if creating checklists for clients is not a current service line for you, perhaps it could become a new source of revenue.

Today, I use checklists for arranging my travel and for packing. I just built a checklist to make my reviewing of student papers more consistent. And, of course, I grocery shop with—you betcha—a checklist!

*An ironic statement on page 24 of Gawande’s book.




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