Author: Martin, George

Making a list, checking it twice

There is a really good book out right now called The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande. Gawande is an American-born medical doctor of East Indian heritage. He started writing for some years ago, then was invited to contribute to the New Yorker and has now written three books. The first two are about medicine and how to improve it. This latest one talks about quality control in many areas besides medicine. Two in particular stand out: aviation and construction of large buildings.

In 1935 Boeing and Douglas Aircraft were competing to build a new bomber for the U.S. Army Air Corps. On paper, the Boeing was the far superior plane. It carried more bombs, was faster, had more range, and four engines instead of two. Press reports dubbed it “the Flying Fortress.” An aerial demonstration was arranged in Dayton, Ohio. The Boeing, then known as Model 299, took off gracefully but promptly stalled and crashed, killing most of those on board.

It turned out that the plane was very complicated to fly, with the pilot having to manage four engines. But the real problem was someone forgot to turn off a locking mechanism that immobilized the elevators and rudders on the tail.

Douglas won the contract, but the Flying Fortress so impressed the Army that they ordered 13 of them, now called B-17s, and the plane evolved through various design advances and played a major part in the European theater of World War II, dropping more bombs than any other airplane.

The crash of the prototype sent Boeing back to the drawing board as far as flying it was concerned, and the company came up with a major checklist for the crew to use, a system that continues to this day in virtually every aircraft being flown.

Gawande’s book also goes into how large skyscrapers are constructed. When you pass a big building site and see some large trailers parked there as construction offices, you can assume that the walls of the trailers are completely papered in detailed checklists. They enable the building to rise floor by floor, while below the initial construction electricians, plumbers, and eventually drywall workers, carpet installers and even furniture movers can come in, on cue, and prepare the building for occupancy.

I read this book about a month ago, and pondered if there was any place in my own life where I should use a checklist. Obviously when I go out do do a series of errands would be a good starting point. It seems a regular occurrence for me to leave the house vowing to do A, B, C and D, and to come home and realize I only did A, C and D.

And just the other day I discovered a new one, when I deviated from my usual routine and made a bad (here’s the bluegrass content!) error that partially messed up a band gig.

Always, a few days before a gig, I’ll e-mail everyone in the band, reminding them of the time, place, etc., and requesting a reply so I know we are all on the same page. But a few days ago, we had played a job on the weekend and talked about our next job on Tuesday evening, and I got busy and complacent and didn’t send out the usual reminder.

So there three of us were as the clock ticked toward seven o’clock, the room filled with people and the fourth band member was nowhere to be found. And his cell phone was on voice mail. Arghh!

We waited about five minutes past seven, then started the show as a trio. About 7:20 the missing band member arrived, hurriedly pulled his instrument out of its gig bag and started playing along. The show went well, the client was pleased and several audience members came up and bought CDs. Then we all wanted to know, “Where the hell were you?”

Turned out our missing friend thought the gig was at 7:30, not 7:00. And he thought he knew where the Burlingame Library was, except Burlingame has more than one library, and the one he used to go to as a child was the wrong one.

This all could have been avoided if I had sent out the customary “checklist” memo. I read the book, I just didn’t pay enough attention.

Who was it said, “So soon old, so late smart?”
Posted:  7/8/2010

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