The Power of Checklists


I recently published a list of mature agile team behaviors. I advocated that you could use it as a litmus test or frankly a checklist of “does your team do these things?” I want to revisit why I built that list.

I’ve found that the act of building a checklist for yourself is a means of self-programming. I was first introduced to this idea by 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This act of self-programming is a means of learning and codifying what you believe is good. Many high performing groups find checklist help them produce better, more consistent results. But you can also share these checklists!

For example, the delivery nurses sent me home with a checklist after my children were born. It was just a simple “Check these things when baby cries” checklist. But even at 2 AM, when the baby is screaming in my ear, having that checklist helped me produce better result! They codified a bit of knowledge when not under pressure. And it helped me produce better results while under pressure. The baby spent less time crying. I was less frustrated. And we both got more sleep! But this isn’t the only benefit you get from creating your own checklist. Checklists can save lives!

The station personnel of Japanese Bullet Train have a point-and-call system. Instead of paper and pen, this is a physically exercised checklist. They use it to make certain that, before a train departs, they have checked these things every time! Simple things like that the line on the platform is clear. The check that the doors are closed. And that people are not reaching out to touch the train right when it’s about to go zooming off!

Every one of these checklists has a meaningful, significant impact. Be it in the terms of performance or sometimes of human lives. The power of a checklist isn’t just in “look how smart I am!” The power of a checklist is in the long term excellence of the team. The Checklist is a ratchet you can use to change your program. Put those good things you once knew back in mind! Keep pursuing the good you know, even when under pressure!