In 1935, Boeing Corporation almost went bankrupt after its Model 299 long-range bomber literally crashed and burned during a U.S. Army flight competition. Major Ployer P. Hill, the pilot, and one other crew member died in the crash. As a result, the Army contract went to a competing company, causing major financial difficulties for Boeing.
As a consolation, the Army ordered a few Model 299s for further testing. The question was how to fly them safely. The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande writes that the Army eventually “came up with an ingeniously simple approach: they created a pilot’s checklist, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing.”
“With the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident,” according to Gawande. The Army eventually ordered thousands of the aircraft, which became known as the B-17.
Gawande’s December 2007 story is a paean to the checklist, one of the simplest and most effective error-reduction tools. Checklists have been proven to work for pilots, doctors, nurses, and even people working at a nuclear power stations. For example, the use of a World Health Organization surgical safety checklist helped reduce inpatient deaths following operations by 40 percent, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Checklists also work for journalists. We just don’t use them.
One reason is that newsrooms often put too much emphasis on experience. The assumption is that a veteran reporter or editor will make fewer errors than a rookie. But research doesn’t support this idea. In a 2000 article for the British Medical Journal, James Reason, one of the world’s leading researchers of human error, emphasized that “it is often the best people who make the worst mistakes—error is not the monopoly of an unfortunate few.”
Gawande poses an intriguing question that relates to Reason’s point: “What do you do when expertise is not enough?”
Part of the answer is that you create and enforce the use of tools and processes that eliminate opportunities for error. You stop making people rely solely on experience. This is where a checklist is useful. It reminds us of the steps required to achieve the best result. It reduces the likelihood of a preventable error. Simply put, checklists work.
Over the years, some news organizations have used checklists. There are samples online from the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. The latter enforced the use of checklists among a group of reporters and editors over an eight-month period spanning 1999 and 2000. The result, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, was that the checklist group “had 10 percent fewer errors than a similar group not using the checklist.”
Even with that success story on the books, checklists are foreign objects to the vast majority of newsrooms. My constant endorsement of the checklist is usually met with blank looks. You want us to check off items on a piece of appear while we’re trying to do our jobs?! I know, it’s madness. This week I even created a free downloadable accuracy checklist for reporters (it will help editors as well). You can get your copy here. But wait, there’s more.
Here’s my Billy Mays pitch: commit to using a checklist on every story your work on for the rest of the month. It’s the shortest month of the year, and we’re already one week into it. Download my checklist or create your own and keep a fresh copy on your desk. Tape it to your monitor. Tattoo it on your hand. Whatever works. Then take ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the writing or editing process and use the checklist to go through your work.
Then, when March 1 rolls around, think back to all the times the checklist helped you catch an error. If you actually used the checklist, I’m sure that come Monday, March 2, you’ll print out a fresh one and get back to work.
For now, though, if you’re skeptical about the value of checklists, consider this: when flight 1549 lost both engines shortly after takeoff a few weeks ago, the co-pilot started going through an “engine restart checklist.” He also had a “ditching checklist” onboard for that exact situation.
Yet more evidence that checklists work.
Correction of the Week
“In last week’s column about photographing snowflakes, I said I was delighted to learn about the delightful word “groppel,” meaning little globs of ice that form on snowflakes.
A couple of readers promptly noted that the word might have seemed novel to me because it’s actually “graupel,” a German term transported into English.