Checklists: Make money as well as save lives

It’s been about a year since I posted about how checklists can save lives, so it must be time for another entry, right?

There’s an article in the Financial Times on ‘Airline pilot’ protocols in finance. that talks about checklists. It cites a study performed in the late 90s on venture capitalists. It identified several different types of VC based on how they evaluated potential startups. Some came to snap judgments, others based their decision on the technology, ignoring the people, etc. One type — the so-called “airline pilots” — used checklists to help them decide. The study’s conclusion was that this type of VC was far less likely to have to fire the founders down the road: 10%, rather than the 50% average of the rest of the VCs.

The article above is an excerpt from this book (affiliate link warning): The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Checklists are a way of making mistakes only once. In a very few fields that might not apply; I can’t imagine a painter running down a checklist that says:

  • Use at least 10% red.
  • Paint the subject in 3/4 pose if it is a woman, face-on if it is a man.
  • The subject should cover 60% of the field of view
  • etc.

But of course a painter might have a checklist for how to promote art: how to get it in galleries, how to encourage reviewers, how to reach customers.

In many circumstances people tend to have strong resistance to using a checklist, but in others most people have no problem with it. You probably don’t have a checklist for going to work, even though that likely has more than five steps (the number to put in a central venous catheter), and you’ve probably forgotten your gloves/keys/umbrella/paperwork more than once. But you’ve almost certainly followed a checklist when making dinner. What’s the difference between the two? For starters, you may have followed a checklist/recipe, but have you ever written one down?

In the end I think it comes down to convenience and ease of use. I’m going to look at the alternatives for the iPhone and see if any of them are up to the task.


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