In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, How to Get Things Right, Atul Gawande looks at the way checklists have been used in building skyscrapers and flying planes and relates those processes to surgery, creating surgical checklists that have helped save lives. He talks about the fact that, in order to deal with complexity, medicine has broken up tasks into specialties. But even when broken down into specialties, the task of practicing medicine can be overwhelming.
Law, too, has become more and more specialized, with general practitioners a dying breed. And yet, lawyers seem to be more overwhelmed than ever. Both doctors and lawyers deal with a variety of matters, some of which can be quite intricate. And since both doctors and lawyers are dealing with individuals, there are an infinite number of variables that are introduced; the exact same matter can be wildly different with two different clients (or two different adversaries).
Gawande notes that, “it is far from obvious that something as simple as a checklist could be of substantial help…. we believe our jobs are too complicated to reduce to a checklist.” This is why lawyers rail against the suggestion that some of their work can be systematized, or that they should take the time to create procedures and checklists. But what they don’t realize, and what Gawande tries to point out in his book, is that it is precisely because the work of professionals is so complicated that checklists are needed.
The checklist is the mechanism that catches the ‘stupid stuff’ (as Gawande says) so that we, as professionals, don’t need to think about it. The checklist takes care of the mundane and frees up our minds to focus on the more complex, more important work that requires analysis, legal knowledge and creative thinking. And of course, checklists are great for delegating work to others, or for training.
Some of the interesting points Gawande makes in his book about how and why checklists work were especially interesting to me –
1. Test your checklist in the real world. You need to see whether your checklist will work in the heat of the moment – is something important left off of the list? Is the list too cumbersome to use in a practical matter? Gawande notes that, in order to keep checklists manageable, it may make sense to leave some steps off of the checklist if they are steps that are virtually never forgotten.
2. Consider checklists an element of teamwork. The point of the list is not necessarily just to check off the boxes or cross something off of a list; building discipline and teamwork are also important. Adding items to checklists that can improve communication among team members and soliciting input on the creation of the checklist from all of those involved in a particular activity can greatly improve checklist effectiveness.
3. Use checklists designed to be read and confirmed aloud. According to Gawande, verbal checklists are most effective. This reduces the tendency to ‘cheat’ and to assume all of the steps were taken.
4. Use checklists to study the ‘routine failures’ within your office. Which mistakes are made over and over? Make improvements by looking for patterns or recurring mistakes, defining potential solutions and testing them by using a checklist.
5. Consider both types of checklists. Both READ-DO and the PAUSE-CHECK lists can be implemented in a law practice. The READ-DO checklist is one you consult when you encounter a specific situation and need a step by step reminder of what to do. The PAUSE-CHECK list is one which can be used at specific check points throughout a matter to ensure that nothing important has been missed.
Have you tried creating systems and checklists for your practice?