Checklists only work if you use them: A lesson from aviation for the construction industry

I’ve mentioned Atul Gawande’s book, Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, before. Gawande is a successful surgeon that was looking at ways to reduce preventable injuries and death associated with the surgical processes. His search for a better way to do things led him to the world of aviation – a world in which the checklist reigns supreme.

Before I reached the age of 18, I had over 1,000 hours behind the controls of airplanes, and flew my first solo flight before getting my drivers license. In the cockpit, the checklist is not just some quaint reminder – it means life or death. And that is how pilots are trained.

Gawande learned lessons from senior aviation professionals in how to build an effective checklist. He took those findings to the World Health Organization, leading to the development of the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist. Success rates from implementing the checklist at facilities around the world have been established conclusively.

It is my opinion, and one that is shared by numerous professionals in the A/E/C industry, that checklists can and should be used to improve quality in the built environment.

But, there’s a catch…

Checklists only work if you use them. Some pilots on a flight out of Australia, on a state-of-the-art Airbus A320 with 220 passengers, almost paid the ultimate price to learn this lesson:

The co-pilot looked over and saw the captain “preoccupied with his mobile phone”, investigators said. The captain told investigators he was trying to unlock the phone to turn it off, after having forgotten to do so before take-off.

At 1000 feet, the co-pilot scanned the instruments and felt “something was not quite right” but could not spot what it was.

At this stage the captain still did not realise the landing gear had not been lowered, and neither pilot went through their landing checklist.