The Simple, Life-Saving Checklist

One of my favorite stories of #RestlessRenewal comes from the history of the B-17 bomber and the invention of the flight checklist. Born from tragedy, this simple document helped launch the “Flying Fortress”, one of the key elements to the Allied victory over Germany in World War II.

If you’re not familiar with this story, in October 1935 the United States military conducted a flight demonstration at Wright Field to determine who – Martin, Douglas, or Boeing – should manufacture the next-generation bomber.  Arriving at the demonstration from Seattle in nine hours and three minutes, the Boeing B-17 was – by far – the fastest, most capable plane under consideration. Dubbed “The Flying Fortress” for its massive size and ordinance, Boeing’s B-17 was a state-of-the-art aircraft with technologies never-before-used on a bomber, including four adjustable-pitch propellers and electronic controls.

On demonstration day, a crew of five commanded by Major Ployer Hill launched the B-17 gracefully into the sky. The plane lifted to 300 feet before tipping sharply and tragically crashing into the ground. An investigation found that Major Hill had been preoccupied with the various controls and neglected to release the rudder and elevator brake. Many believed the plane was just “too complicated to fly”.  The military canceled all orders for the B-17.

No pilot had better training or preparation with the B-17 than Hill, yet an overlooking a routine step had cost the crew their lives. Faced with near ruin, Boeing turned military convention on its head and prepared a step-by-step flight manual to ensure the aircraft’s safe operation.

With the B-17 checklist in hand, pilots subsequently flew 1.8 million testing miles over 13,000 hours without incident, creating one of military aviation history’s most impressive safety records and – in the process – established a new benchmark: the flight checklist. More than 12,000 B-17s would be ordered for flights during the WWII era, with American air commander Gen. Carl Spaatz said, “Without the B-17 we may have lost the war.”

Today it’s difficult to imagine complex processes without checklists. It’s not that we are stupid or lack the aptitude – human brains can hold up to 4.7 million books in their memory. The real problem is retrieving that information accurately and when we need it. It’s a problem of effort and attention. This is where checklists come into play. From launching astronauts into space to surgical procedures, the checklist is a de facto safety net to ensure critical items are not overlooked.

What if we applied this same process map to more routine tasks? Adding a basic checklist to everyday tasks can eliminate both defects and rework. Take, for example, the mundane task of replacing the toner cartridge in an office printer. We (generally) know to open the printer, remove the old, open the new, replace the cartridge, and get back to work. But one of the most beneficial steps in the process can be overlooked: repacking the empty cartridge for recycling. For companies with recycling programs, this miss not only creates more waste but can lower rebates that contribute to greater profitability.

A checklist for creating checklists

Daniel Boorman, a veteran pilot working for Boeing and the technical lead for the development of the 787’s pilot system of checklists, has worked with the FBI, the World Health Organization, and many more, wrote a set of recommendations, that I’ll paraphrase:

  • Investigate your failures.   Start by identifying “friction points” in routines; use those as a starting point.
  • Focus on the “stupid” stuff.   A checklist is not a comprehensive manual. Outline the essentials without recounting every detail explicitly. The shorter the checklist is, the better.
  • Keep it simple.  An effective checklist should fit on one page, be written in an easily readable, sans serif font, and be free from clutter – and emojis 🙂
  • Decide between a “DO-CONFIRM” or a “READ-DO” checklist.   More complex tasks should require the user to read the list before doing the step (READ-DO).  Routine items should be an invisible hand ensuring a step was completed (DO-CONFIRM).

Look around your daily routines:  where can you and those you lead benefit from a checklist? What is your B-17 checklist moment?


For more on the story of the B-17 checklist and how the same principle has been used to increase efficiency and save lives, I recommend the book THE CHECKLIST MANIFESTO by Atul Gawande, available in print and Kindle formats from