On the power of checklists

‘Under conditions of true complexity, a centralized command-and-control decision chain doesn’t work all that well. Instead we get better results by codifying what needs to happen into a simple checklist and giving people the freedom to act and adapt using their best judgment’

The Situation: Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005. A lone agent of the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) actually spotted the situation in a helicopter and immediately filed an email report to the centre as all other communication failed. But, none of the FEMA top management used email..

In the meanwhile Wal-mart, a company known for great systems for all eventualities (much like Mcdonalds), had 126 stores in the New Orleans region.

Wal-mart’s Response: CEO Lee Scott immediately sanctioned all his managers to ‘make the best decision’ they could ‘and above all, do the right thing.’ Acting in accordance to their checklists and judgment –

– Wal-mart distributed diapers, water, baby formula, food, sleeping bags and toiletries to all affected residents
– One assistant manager even took a bull dozer worth of food and gave it away to residents.
– Another broke into the store’s pharmacy when the hospital ran out of medicines and was later lauded by senior management
– Wal-mart even supplied the National Guard with food and water a day before the federal government could respond

By the end, Wal-Mart sent 2,498 trailer loads of supplies and donated more than $3.5 million in merchandise. This demonstrates better than ever that checklists work very well in complex situations as they hit a balance between what usually seem conflicting virtues

I read a detailed summary of this book this week and I have been very impressed! The author, Atul Gawande, is a famous surgeon and as the medical, aviation and construction industries use checklists more extensively, Atul is very aware of their impact. He makes a strong case for us to use checklists extensively in our lives – especially since they ensure we don’t sleep up in a crisis situation! More on this next week maybe.. :)

Source: Weekly Book Learnings and ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ by Atul Gawande