Notes from Checklist Manifesto

In Montreal this summer, while making idle conversation, Paul asked me if I had read anything interesting. Here was my answer…

Five years ago, I met D. Richard Hipp because my friends were thinking of bundling a database he wrote into PHP. Since that time, besides being in the PHP core and thus about 40% of the web servers on the planet, SQLite is in every smartphone, in software such as Firefox, platforms such as Adobe AIR, and operating systems such as Apple Mac OS X. It is used by Oracle and Bloomberg.

I was curious how the unassuming man I met took the new-found fame of his pet software project. This is why, despite my hatred for all things database—they’re boring and talks about them are probably what it feels like to sit through a course on actuarial accounting—I popped into his talk at OSCON.

I was glad I did. It was about, of all things, checklists.

My brother and father are much more responsible than my mom and me. One things that separates them from us was in their methodical use of checklists. Watching his talk reminded me how important they are, how they can be used for so much more than I considered, and how thankful I was that I finally made a packing checklist before going to Portland (and Montreal). 🙂

Read the article, and, if that interests you, buy the book.

With a little imagination, a checklist will change your life.

Notes from the book Checklist Manifesto

Checklist benefits
– help memory recall
– clearly set out minimum steps necessary
– establish higher standard of baseline performance

Three types of problems

  • simple: recipe
  • complicated: no set recipe, perfectable
  • complex: unanticipated

Katrina’s lesson

  • central organization fails on complexity (no master builder)
  • general organization and direction
  • individual autonomy
  • communication binds general direction with individual autonomy

Restaurant story

  • stand up meeting for unanticipated events
  • final check by chef/sous-chef

Three requirements for guidelines

  • simple : can be systematized
  • measurable
  • transmissible
  • cheap

communication in checklist

  • “team briefing:
  • stand up meeting to voice concerns
  • biggest danger is “not my problem”
  • fosters teamwork
  • “activation phenomenon”

pause points

general and specific lists

bad checklists are:

  • vague
  • imprecise
  • too long
  • hard to use
  • impractical
  • made by those with no awareness of the problem space

good checklists are:

  • precise
  • efficient: do not spell everything out, easy to use
  • practical

why use a checklist

  • training
  • proven worth


  • define pause points for when used
  • do-confirm or read-do list?
  • not lengthy (guideline: 5-9 items, 50-90 seconds before “shortcutting” occurs)
  • simple and exact wording
  • fit on one page
  • free of clutter, unnecessary colors
  • uppercase and lowercase
  • sans serif font
  • must be tested in the real world
  • remove all steps that are always performed (not comprehensive)
  • allow for customization

delay in implementing?

  • investigate failures then build a checklist
  • because knowledge is not translated into simple, usable, systematic form
  • collect data before implementing list
  • make a list of mistakes then match list of checks to them

who halts and starts a checklist? Answer: not the operator

  • too busy, liable to slip up
  • sends egalitarian message

the goal is not to check boxes

  • promote culture of teamwork
  • promote culture of discipline
  • improve outcomes with no increase in skill

“Fly the airplane”

Code of professionalism

  • expectation of selflessness
  • expectation of skill
  • expectation of trustworthiness
  • discipline (teamwork)
  • frequent visitation & refinement of lists

checklists that deal with systems/assemblies

  • great component but not enough
  • car analogy

2 thoughts on “Notes from Checklist Manifesto

  1. I’m so bummed that I missed that talk.

    Thanks for sharing your notes from the book! The point about starting to create checklists from points of failure is so key. Creating lists of the stuff you get right every time sort of defeats the purpose.

    I would love to see what your packing checklist is. Here’s mine (each item on the list inspired by painful failure):

    • Confirm the number of days gone, time of departure and time of return on tickets. Print one copy of itinerary.
    • Make piles of: undergarments, socks, shirt/blouse, pant/skirt, shoes for each day.
    • Add: swimming gear, workout gear, specialized recreation gear as needed.
    • Collect devices and chargers: phone, ereader, laptop, secondary usb power supply. Maybe also tablet. Pack spare batteries in checked luggage.
    • Take enough US cash for two meals, credit card, debit card, identification. If you have status on an airline, bring the ID card for cutting in line.
    • Put: laptop, ereader, phone, notebook, keys, any reading material, wallet and IDs in carry on. Everything else in second carry on or checked luggage.
    • Hold or contact home services. (newspaper, mail, etc)


    1. I have a packing list in TaskPaper that changes before each travel.

      • scan the list and remove stuff to the bottom that doesn’t apply for this trip
      • scan the stuff on the bottom and move to the top
      • check the stuff as I pack
      • when completely packed, move unchecked stuff to the top (I miss stuff)

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