How to write a GOOD checklist

Mina Tawadrous
Aug 28, 2018 · 4 min read

It’s pretty difficult these days to have conversations around business and entrepreneurship without hearing about checklists. Ever since Atul Gawande released his 2009 mega-hit “Checklist Manifesto” the professional world seems to have a newfound obsession with checklist creation. Finally having read the book myself, I came away with what I thought were the key steps to creating a useful checklist. But first — why are checklists so powerful?


The power of a “good” checklist

“Checklist Manifesto” is a greatly entertaining read into the use of checklists in the business and medical world. Most surprisingly, the book centers around Gawande’s own attempt (and success) at creating a surgical checklist and using it in hospitals to save lives.

In the first eighteen months, the hospitals saved an estimated $175,000,000 in costs and more than 1,500 lives. The successes have been sustained for almost four years — all because of a stupid little checklist.

But creating that checklist wasn’t easy. In fact, Gawande’s first version was thrown out due to its confusion and ineffectiveness. The steps were confusing and the checklist was incredibly long. Frustrated and defeated, Gawande went back to the drawing board to understand what made a “good” checklist. He discovers;

Good checklists are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything–a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps–the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.

Here’s 5 key take-ways that should help anyone in their checklist creation.


Step 1) Define the checklists goal

Why do you want to make a checklist? Are you trying to reduce the amount of error in a process you often repeat? Is there something you need done by someone else and want to ensure results? Are you trying to ensure the right people get to voice their opinions at the right time? Depending on what the biggest pain-point is, you may develop your checklist very differently.

Step 2) Decide whether your checklist is READ-DO or DO-CONFIRM

There are two types of checklists. A READ-DO checklist which is designed for the reader to complete tasks as they read them (ex. read out an item, do it, check it off) or a DO-CONFIRM checklist (ex. do all items and use the checklist to confirm each item was completed) which is helpful in cases where you can’t nescessarily interrupt workflow between tasks. Which will best help you achieve your goal?

Step 3) Design with the expert in mind

When we think of a checklist – we usually think of a dumbed down list of items for “any idiot” to be able to complete. Although that statement is relatively true, it’s important to note the best checklists are useful even for experts. When experts are facing an extremely complex task and an error is made, it’s usually one that they are able to look back on and think that they should have seen it coming. A good checklist is more of an experts tool rather than a beginners manual.

It is common to misconceive how checklists function in complex lines of work. They are not comprehensive how-to guides, whether for building a skyscraper or getting a plane out of trouble. They are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals. And by remaining swift and usable and resolutely modest, they are saving thousands upon thousands of lives.

Step 4) Keep it short

True checklists need to be short and simple. We often mistakenly create checklists in an attempt to educate a user, but checklists are not the best format for that — there’s reference manuals for that. A checklist should be no longer than 6–10 tasks and each task should take only 1–2 minutes to check off. If you find yourself creating a long checklist ask yourself whether or not you can split the checklist itself into multiples. Make sure it passes the expert test. After using your checklist 10 times, would an expert find this checklist useful?

Step 5) Test & iterate

Let’s face it — your first checklist is going to suck. You need to place your checklist into the hands of its ideal users to get real insight on what improvements need to be made. As your checklist gets used, ask yourself: What items are taking too long to check? Should those be divided into shorter items? Are there any items that seem confusing? Do some items seem redundant? Make improvements. Finalize the new version. Test. And iterate again.


Check out Checklist Manifesto in full if you’ve enjoyed this read.

Need some examples of amazing checklists? See all of Gawande’s checklists here

Mina Tawadrous

Written by

Product Manager, father of 2 and book junkie. I work with smart people who are solving difficult problems. Pretty obsessed with all things lean.

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