There’s a time and a place for checklists – Insights by Guy Higgins

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I recently read a white paper by the Cato Institute, Do Checklists Make a Difference? A Natural Experiment from Food Safety. The paper looks at the use of checklists as the “hot” new way to manage complexity. I immediately thought of one of my favorite H.L. Mencken quotes, “For every complex (emphasis added) problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Guy Higgins, Firestorm Principal – Firestorm Colorado

I wrote about (and advocated) the use of checklists in my post, Just a Detail. I stand by my support for checklists as discussed in that post, but I want, now, to cogitate about when checklists might not be the best tools.

First, I think it’s important to establish a couple of definitions (from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary):

  • Checklist – a list of things to be checked or done (I love it when dictionaries use a form of the word to be defined in the definition of that word).
  • Process – a series of actions or operations conducing (“to lead or tend to a particular and often desirable result” – as defined by the illustrious Merriam-Webster dictionary) to an end

Since neither Mr. Webster nor the Messers Merriam deigned to expand said definitions to make a clear distinction, I will try to do so:

  • Checklist – a list of things to be checked or done in a completely consistent manner and in a predictable environment.
  • Process – a series of actions or operations, including “if-then” decision points, analyses, and broadly defined steps (such as collect relevant information) conducing to an end

The Noble Reader will certainly recall my previous posts about David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework, which separates situations into Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic domains. The first two domains comprise what David refers to as the “ordered” half of the framework and the second two domains comprise the “unordered” half of the framework

With that background, I’ll boldly assert that checklists are extremely valuable tools in the Simple domain. The environment, or at least the segment to which the checklist is being applied is predictable (note – an airplane emergency, say, an engine fire is not a completely predictable environment, but the steps to shut down the engine and activate the fire extinguisher are highly predictable). The same steps are necessary every time!

It is absolutely not clear to me that checklists are as valuable in any of the other three domains. In the Complicated domain, expert knowledge is needed to understand and act, and the action may well change as a function of the application of the expert knowledge. In the Complex domain, significant analyses are necessary, and, even then, cause and effect may not be identifiable until after the fact, precluding pre-defined actions. In the Chaotic domain (the classic example is 9/11 in Lower Manhattan), even analyses are inadequate and action is aimed only at stabilizing the situation until more precise cognitive tools can be brought to bear. A list of redefined steps (a checklist) is certainly not the right tool in the Chaotic domain.

If we try to apply checklists to the three non-Simple domains, we are at risk of failing to appreciate Mr. Mencken’s observation and trying to apply a simple, but wrong, solution to a complex problem. In those three domains, processes, although less directive with less precise, and not pre-defined, are more applicable.

A decision-making process, as I have asserted, needs to be repeatable and can certainly include the use of checklists, but is not, itself, a checklist.

I think that the current emphasis on checklists reflects a desire for a silver-bullet solution. I am reminded of an observation by an admiral who, during the fad-like application of the Integrated Process Team (IPT) tool to every conceivable task, facetiously observed, “I was walking down the passageway (that’s a “hall” for land lubbers) the other day and ran into Admiral X. He and I formed an IPT on the spot and decided to do Y.” Not all tools can be applied to all situations.

Checklists are valuable tools, but they are not a panacea.

Predict and Plan – but be very sure to Perform.


Guy Higgins and his business partner, Jennifer Freedman are Firestorm Principals. committed to the importance of planned resilience in the face of disruption or crisis.

With more than sixty years of combined business experience, they are committed to the importance of planned resilience in the face of disruption or crisis. They assist companies and organizations plan for and achieve breakthrough performance, even in the face of disruptions and disasters that can severely cripple their ability to do business or put them out of business entirely. Learn more about Guy and Jennifer. 

Interested in working with Firestorm? If you are looking for a professional consulting and training business opportunity that will put your experience and contacts to work, check out our Franchising opportunities. Firestorm can show you how preparedness can create opportunities for you and help others.

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