Book Club: Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Book Club is a series of reviewing business-related books. You can check out the Book Club tag for more reviews. - Patrick


Everyone. Don't care if you're entry-level, CEO or somewhere in-between. Don't care if you're in construction, hospitality, HR, medical or anything else. The ideal reader is someone looking for solid foundational principles that will help build a business, a career or just be better at being human.


Checklist Manifesto makes a case for why checklists should be a cornerstone in ALL processes - business, life, career, etc. Realizing and unleashing the power of even a basic checklist will transform the way you do things and it will help you level-up.


  1. The impact of checklists varies based on the type of problem - simple, complicated, complex
  2. Checklists will prevent potentially catastrophic issues. They will also aid in maintaining steady progress and repeatable actions.
  3. Decentralize problem solving, aka - consult experts and use that to guide decision making
  4. Construction is a place of true complexity. Act accordingly.


We encounter complexity on a daily (or even hourly, for some) basis. These complex problems or scenarios can spur forgetfulness, confusion and mixups. Gawande opens with a compelling case for the rise of issues in the medial field due to extremely complex problems. And, as he puts it, "complexity on top of complexity."

We see a fair bit of this in the construction industry also. As the projects grow in size and value, the complexity is tagging right along with it. Trade stacking, accelerated schedules, operations planning, etc. We're literally taking lots of complex operations and stacking one on top of another. This is why I think this book is such a must-read for the construction industry.

This brings us to the use of checklists by professionals. The first checklist was actually use in aviation; a pilot's checklist, created for flying the, at the time, behemoth of an aircraft, the B-17. What's interesting about this is that using a checklist never crossed the pilot's mind because there wasn't much complexity with flying the B-17. But it was bigger and more daunting than ever before. So this checklist was more of a way to 'just not forget' things during operation.

What I REALLY like about this book is that it ties in pretty closely with another book from our Book Club - The Power of Habit by Charles Duhig. He doesn't come out and make the connection, but a major topic in The Power of Habit was that our brains are always looking for shortcuts; looking for the most efficient way to spend its energy. And THAT is why we need checklists. Because our very own brain is trying to skip steps and move through standard processes as efficiently as possible.

There are three kinds of problems in the world:

SIMPLE (like baking a cake)

COMPLICATED (like sending a rocket to the moon)

COMPLEX (like raising a child)

"The biggest cause of serious error [in construction] is lack of communication." -Finn O'Sullivan

Decentralizing problem solving

Gawande's prime case study for this is actually the construction industry! During his research, he spent some time with construction experts learning how they working in such a complex environment. A place where there are SO MANY factors that it seems nearly impossible to ever get it all right.

What he found was that when problems arose, the best way the Project Director could handle it was to decentralize the problemWhat does that actually mean? Simple - he would get every one of his experts together and start the conversation. Because of the complexity, no single person should be making this decision. So he empowered his subject matter experts to problem-solve each of their pieces of the issue and work collectively when needed.

TRUE COMPLEXITY: Where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns.
— Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

The Checklist Creation Process:

Develop the checklist content

In this part of the process, it's all about the need for a checklist and what you hope to accomplish. Things like how is it going to be used, are we doubling up by creating this and do we even actually need it?

Create the checklist

No that the concept has been developed and we know what we're after, this is the fun part. Start creating the list! There are a few things to keep in mind, though, like the length of the checklist, font size, and other 'clerical' items like that. But, believe it or not, if the user can't READ it, the checklist will be totally useless. So he's got a good point on that one.

Test the checklist

In the book, Gawande compares this to the aviation checklists that are scrutinized in a flight simulator prior to making it to real life. He went so far as to simulate a surgical procedure to test his very own checklist. Find a way to test things, make tweaks and changes, then keep testing until it really does what you want it to do.

In construction, checklists are imperative to running a successful project. Remember, too, that not all checklists are 10 bullet-points on a single sheet of paper. Some come in the form of a schedule that's 6 feet tall and 20 feet long. Submittal lists, RFI's, and contract scopes are all different forms of checklists. And unfortunately, a lot of the issues we see in construction are a result of ignoring these 'checklists'. Remember that there is a reason we put those papers on the wall and send monthly schedule updates: we work in an industry of true complexity, where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns.

A note about the Book Club: I'm always looking for good reads, and I'm a non-fiction kind of guy. There are two things I want you, the reader, to do: 1) Let's chat in the comments below about the book or what your takeaways are, and 2) tell me if you know of a book that should make the reading list.

Thanks, Patrick