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The importance of checklists in the professional world

Written by Fitzpatrick Group • Marketing Officer
Published on 11 Mar 2019

The humble checklist has withstood the test of time as one of the most beloved tools available to people who want to get things done. Checklists are often used in the form of to-do lists or to keep track of tasks in procedure heavy projects.

Current every-day applications can be found in the form of checklists like shopping lists, evacuation procedures, and action plans. Some may think that an inability to remember absolutely everything communicates a lack of intelligence. This could not be further from the truth.


Checklists are for professionals

Most human beings are forgetful creatures. Some may boast about their capacity for memory, but the truth is that small and big details get missed all the time by everyone. Whether you are a complete professional at the highest level of their craft or a beginner still learning the ropes, checklists are essential to ensuring all details, both big and small don’t go missing.


Checklists save lives

While this may sound like an exaggeration, it’s true.

The checklist manifesto written by Atul Gawande demonstrates the importance of having a checklist that documents repeatable, often forgettable, processes. Atul Gawande is a surgeon who became fascinated by checklists after learning about an experience a three-year-old girl went through during Winter in the Alps of Austria.

In this experience, a Mother and Father decided to take a walk with their daughter and at some point in their journey, they briefly lost sight of her. Not long after realising this, they spotted her standing innocently over a frozen over lake when to their horror, she fell through the ice.

She spent thirty minutes under water before they found her, with another hour of CPR being administered as they rushed her to hospital. By the time they got her on the surgeon’s table, an hour and a half had already passed, and she had no pulse, no respiration, and was not responding to light.

If a negative response is returned for those three things, it only means one thing – the brain is gone.

Not wanting to give up on the young girl pushed these medical professionals to undertake what would have previously been viewed as impossible.

The short and thick of it – they saved her. Not only did they bring her back, but in fact, by the age of five she looked and sounded like a normal five-year-old. You can read the entire experience as described by Atul Gawande himself through this link here.

So how does this link back to checklists?


A thing about complexity

The process of saving this girl was incredibly complex. A quick summary of the things they needed to do to bring her back included (but definitely weren’t limited to)

  1. Performing an immediate surgery to apply a cardiopulmonary bypass machine to raise her body temperature and get her heart pumping on its own.
  2. Get her breathing again by utilising an extracorporeal membrane oxygenator (or ECMO) which required surgery to open up her chest.
  3. They had to remove the previous device to bring back her heart and repair the vessels they had needed in order for the EMCO to work.
  4. Move her into an intensive care unit (transported from one sterile environment to the next).
  5. Continually suction fluid out of her lungs over 24 hours until she started breathing on her own again.

These processes were repeated until each organ was able to “come back online”. All that was left was the last and most important organ: the brain.

Procedures were performed to relieve pressure, but for the first week she was in a coma, completely unresponsive. Then suddenly, her eyes began reacting to light, she began breathing again without the assistance of the EMCO. And then one day, “she simply awoke”.

Two weeks later, she was home.

One mistake at any point throughout any of the procedures required to bring her back to life would have meant certain death. However, the process of bringing her back was completed flawlessly. For one person to do this would have been an incredible feat, but as Atul described “There were dozens, probably hundreds of people involved”.

How is something like this achieved? It’s achieved with checklists.

Checklists help reduce complex, overwhelming tasks to a simple process that anyone can follow. In fact, if you don’t believe me – check out this account of an 80-year-old Grandmother who managed to land a private plane, after getting guidance from a pilot who ran her through a checklist of flight exercises before coaching her to a landing. Hollywood cliché come to life.


Back to reality

Before we lose sight of the ordinary with stories of the extraordinary, let’s bring things back to Earth. We don’t have to deal with checklists that mean life and death every day. But if we intend to do things right, then why not do them with checklists?





Check out another recent blog in this category.

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