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The problem with check lists

March 25, 2009

I posted earlier this week on check lists and my affection for them as a memory prompt, job guide and decision making tool. I love them.

Many a time has a check list got me out of bind by letting me know that I had erred with time enough to fix the problem before it became a really noticeable one.


Check lists aren’t the ‘be all and end all’ for every circumstance and certainly will fail to help if not use properly. They are best used for standardised procedures where a single (or very few) correct or best method approach is prescribed (safety checks, start-up procedures, evacuation etc.) and the task can be finished by completing multiple simple actions.

For these types of tasks they are, a useful and effective assistant, but when we stray from these guidlines, they can actually impede the operational process that they attempt to streamline. This is because check lists:

  • Need training to use
  • Restrict focus
  • Discourage ingenuity
  • Hamper re-evaluation
  • Increase in complexity disproportionately.

Need training to use: You need to be taught how to use the check-list before it becomes useful. They are not a training package in themselves and work best when they draw on existing skills and motivation to succeed. That’s not to say that cannot be new instructions – we may never have been taught how to flee a burning aircraft but with the assistance of an aircraft emergency card, we can quickly use our knowledge of doors, hatches, slides and survival to egress the flaming vessel with great haste.

Restrict focus: Like a sniper’s scope, they sharply outline a solution, but in doing so, they obscure they periphery of your vision. You tend to look for the problems that are only outlined by the check list and it is a common assumption that what is covered, is all that is needed to be analysed. The problem that rears is coverage; is our problem or circumstance covered within the scope of this tool? The reliability in recommending the appropriate response is then determined by how much foresight there was in its creation.

Discourage ingenuity: By there very nature, check list offer solutions or actions to be followed. When an alternative solution may be a better option, the user will typically follow what has been prescribed by the tool as the preferred choice. That’s not to say that the check list will preclude the use of alternative solutions, just that when a workable solution is offered, there is less incentive to look for more effective ones.

Hamper re-evaluation: Typically a check list has been tested over time and the solutions are generally well thought out, effective answers for the likely problems that occur, however, when you follow check lists closely, you tend to be looking at how well the problem fit’s the model, not necessarily the solution. Unless you regularly review the solution, you can succumb to the problem of the previous point and assume that once a problem is solved, it will remain so.

Increase in complexity disproportionately: Very complex problems require decision branching, wait delays, alternative solutions and multiple iterations of activities to ensure that they are solved. This becomes very difficult to depict in a suitable format and will actually increase the task complexity by trying to produce an accurate guide. Additionally, any interruption to the process becomes more difficult to overcome (e.g. was this the 46th or 47th time we through this leg of procedure). Encumbering someone with a check list may slow the task considerably and interject more room for error, whilst taking valuable attention away from the task just by trying to decipher the methodology of the instruction.


As I said earlier, check lists are a great tool if used properly. I live by them; something that my pantry can attest to every grocery day. Unfortunately they fail far to often by trying to be something that they are not. If they are not simple, then they are a hindrance. If the aren’t relevant, they are a distraction.

A check list is only a tool, not the entire tool box. You must know the procedures for them to be valuable and they still need experience to be used well. Even if the humble check list was the panacea of techniques for professional prowess, they are still only as effective as the hands that wield them.

Download my free e-book “THE WORKPLACE TRAINER’S TOOLKIT” Eight models for effective on the job training.

New e-book coming soon: “THE POST-TRAINING HOT WASH” – Improve your training from within.

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