I remember these words well… “Gear Down, Flaps Down, Landing Checklist Complete.” They were music to my ears, especially after a long mission training brand new Student Military Aviators in the hot summer months of Northwest Florida. When we uttered those words, particularly on final approach for our last landing of the training mission it meant that we were almost done. Sure, I loved the job, and it is quite a rewarding feeling to be able to train leaders and aviators and to help them fine tune their piloting craft. But let’s face it; it was a tiring job in a demanding environment, full of various hazards. Despite these challenges, one of the tools that consistently helped us avoid serious incidents and stay focused was the checklist.
You might be thinking that checklists are on the lower order of risk controls, getting beat by such things as engineering controls, and you are partially right; they do fall towards the bottom of the hierarchy of controls and many times higher-order controls are more effective. However, I would argue that in some high-risk environments checklists could in some cases be more effective than other controls when those other higher order controls are not feasible or practical, given the nature of the environment itself.
Now let me pause and say that I am a firm believer in the hierarchy of controls, which should be designed to control risks, working from the most effective methods down to the least effective methods, and checklists are towards the bottom of the effectiveness list. Typically, we should try to eliminate risks, substitute less hazardous work methods, develop engineering controls, create warnings and administrative controls, and finally use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). So, if checklists are towards the bottom of the list (often falling into the administrative control category) why am I such a proponent of checklists? First of all, because I have experienced first hand how effective they may be and secondly, because in many demanding high-hazard/high-stress environments with fast operational tempos sometimes the other higher order hazard controls are either not feasible, or if they are used, there is still a potential for error. In many cases checklists may serve as not only a safety tool, but an operations performance and management tool to help crews improve effectiveness, efficiency, and quality. In some cases checklists may be a control layered on top of a higher order control, such as an engineering control backed up with checklists, or an administrative control to attempt to catch performance errors before they lead to contact with employees’ PPE.
I would like to share some examples of checklist use.
As a former Marine Corps aviator I quickly grew to see the importance of checklists in planning and operational execution, as well as with direct operation of our aircraft. In fact, I used to create my own checklists for mission planning to help ensure I wouldn’t miss any key items. When I was the Director of Safety and Standardization for a Navy flight training squadron I even developed a mission planning checklist which I shared with the entire squadron to help with operational and safety performance. Since I have such a strong belief in checklists I would like to share a personal story with you. Several aircraft I flew during my career included engineered systems designed to alert us if we were too close to the ground without our landing gear down. However, as a habit of professional aviators (and hopefully all aviators) we did not rely on the engineering controls and warnings to remind us to put our landing gear down. We built habits and used checklists to reinforce those habits and to help ensure things were done in the right order, that key steps were not missed, and as a tool to trap and correct errors when we encountered them.
Additionally, there were times when my crews and I needed to use tactical checklists to help us remember key items that needed to be set and/or checked to prepare the aircraft and set it in the proper configuration for the specific mission. In fact, I can’t imagine performing certain procedures in high-hazard environments without a checklist and I would like to teach you how to develop checklists. But before we get to that, you may ask such things as, “Why would you use a checklist when you can just remember things?” I would in-turn ask, “Is it possible to forget critical items?” As an example, have you ever set your automobile keys down somewhere and forgotten where they were? What about turning a vehicle's ignition key when the vehicle is already running? If you can forget something so simple, imagine working in a high-hazard environment where distractions can lead to workers losing focus. Checklists often apply to multiple industries, not just aviation. They may serve as a useful tool to help you and your teams or crews with operations and safety performance.
Sure, your front line crews may be pretty proficient with their tools and equipment, but is it possible for them to get distracted and make errors? Sometimes operational environments are error-provocative by their very nature. Do your crews or teams ever perform non-routine work where they lack proficiency? Sometimes they may perform work on a periodic basis, and although they are qualified, perhaps they aren't as proficient due to a lack of regular task performance. Additionally, even with routine work, employees may become so accustomed to the job that they may experience errors, yet assume the work is done correctly. Checklists are a tool to help crews, teams, and individual workers deal with these issues.
How can checklists help? Here are a few ways:
1. Checklists may serve as an operations performance tool to help crews follow a methodical process for staying on task in demanding environments.
2. Checklists may serve as a tool to minimize operations and safety performance errors and as a tool to help identify, trap, and correct errors before they escalate in certain circumstances.
3. Checklists may help to get a team "on the same page," serving as a coordination tool, which may help to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
It is unlikely that checklists will solve all of your team’s problems, but they may help, and here are a few additional key points to consider:
1. Checklists are not a substitute for unsafe conditions or poor safety management systems. They should be a tool that fits into a system approach to safety designed to reduce risk to a level As Low As Reasonably Practicable
2. Checklists should not be designed in a vacuum and the design process should include user input, testing, and feedback.
3. When designing checklists, consider the process and procedure itself, the amount of memorization required, and whether a checklist is even required (Hints: Do all jobs require a checklist? Would you use a checklist while driving a car? Probably not. On the other hand, would you want to fly on a commercial airliner if the pilots didn’t use checklists?)
4. Determine how checklists will fit into an overall procedure and the desired end-goals the checklists should be designed to achieve.
5. Understand that checklists should be designed to help workers and teams safely, efficiently, and effectively accomplish their work and should not simply be designed for the sake of designing the checklist. Sure, it feels good to build a tool, but if workers won’t use it, what good is it? That’s why the second bullet point is important.
6. Even if your teams don’t work in high-hazard environments, checklists may still help. If they face operations-critical tasks where on-time, high-quality performance is important then checklists may help. Consider a geographically dispersed team working on a critical project and the potential for errors. Checklists may serve as focus tools in this demanding environment.
7. Even in low-tempo environments with a great deal of complexity, checklists may also help
If the idea of checklists interests you, and you would like to learn a step-by-step process for creating and implementing checklists to help take your teams to higher levels of performance, and also receive a FREE detailed checklist development guide that walks you through the development steps, please click on the image below. This will allow you to learn more about our live instructor-led online training event and to sign up for the course and eBook waiting list. We won’t spam you. This signup process is simply to get your email address on the waiting list so we can communicate with you about the event and eBook development progress.
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