The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

by Atul Gawande<p />

My rating: 4 of 5 stars <p /> </p>

I am a professional teacher of mathematics at a good, regional University in the Midwest. In many ways, my job is straightforward. Help students learn enough mathematics to be successful and productive citizens. Sometimes this means preparing them for the ‘next’ mathematics course they need to take. Sometimes this means giving them a good mathematical experience and increasing their ability to think about things in a mathematical way.

In many ways, mine is a simple job. There’s little that’s complex or complicated about it. So it would seem that Atul Gawande’s new book, the Checklist Manifesto, would have little too offer me. Reading it would be a waste of time. But reading Dr. Gawande is always a pleasure. He expresses his ideas through anecdote and imagery. This along with my wife’s penchant for list-making, drew me to chose this book as the ‘listen’ for our 1200 mile holiday drive to visit family last year.

In the book, Dr. Gawande explores the way checklists can affect the handling of complicated and complex tasks by trained professionals. What he learns, through personal investigation and professional involvement with the World Health Organization, is that simple (and thoughtfully constructed) checklists can have a striking impact on the quality and volume of work of a group of professionals. Examples he explores include piloting modern commercial airplanes, managing the construction of a large building, providing rapid-response medical aid, rates of infection in hospital intensive care units, complication rates arising from surgery, and identifying prospect companies for investment by a large investment agency. In each of these cases, he shows how having and using thoughtfully designed (or evolved) checklists reduces errors and increases a group’s ability to work as a team.

This latter effect is somewhat surprising and counterintuitive, but it makes a whole lot of sense with Dr. Gawande explaining it. So I’ll leave that to him. The book is definitely worth the four hours of listening-time. The hard-copy version is probably a quicker read. As you read the book, I’ll be thinking about how these ideas can be used in higher education and in the service of teaching mathematics and the sciences. If you have any thoughts on that, give me a shout.