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The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right | Literature Review

By SRAI News posted 11-13-2020 09:10 AM


The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right | Literature Review

This series of articles explores literary works that intersect with our professional interests in research, research administration, and university life.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, we continue to work under disorienting circumstances. Many of us are at home, isolated from our colleagues, coping with family needs, distracted by anxiety. It’s challenging to perform our jobs to the standard we expect from ourselves. What kind of anchor can we tie to during such times?


Atul Gawande would argue for the indispensability of the humble checklist. Gawande is a surgeon and the author of several fascinating books. In The Checklist Manifesto, he explores the history and use of checklists in multiple fields, from aviation to the restaurant industry.

By checklists, Gawande does not mean either to-do lists or how-to guides. As he describes them, checklists are “quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals” (p. 128). Good checklists are carefully developed by analyzing patterns of mistakes and failures and are rigorously tested for their ability to prevent those errors.

Gawande was instrumental in creating the World Health Organization’s Safe Surgery checklists, which have saved many thousands of lives. Despite his passion for the project, Gawande candidly admits that in his heart of hearts, he didn’t believe that he needed surgery checklists. The Checklist Manifesto ends with a moving story about a serious error that Gawande made in surgery. If his team had not followed the pre-surgery checklist, they wouldn’t have discovered that someone had forgotten to stock blood for emergency transfusion, and the patient would have died when the accident occurred. Gawande gives the final words of his book to this patient. It’s a graceful and appropriate expression of humility in a book that is all about realizing that each of us, no matter how expert, is subject to oversights and errors.

Reading The Checklist Manifesto may inspire you to look at your own work with fresh eyes. We work in a highly complex field; we all understand the importance of consistently getting things right. A well-crafted checklist may be the tool that takes your team’s performance to a higher level.

Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Metropolitan Books, 2009.

Authored by Rebecca Weaver Rinehart, Pre-Award Specialist
University of Northern Iowa