Perform like a surgeon

Three weeks after I hired Maria (not her real name) she distributed her first press release for me. She published the draft version instead of the final. Maria was not a native English speaker and the draft was chock-full of grammatical errors. This was the most public mistake my company had made.

I was very embarrassed. Still, I let Maria make a lot more mistakes over a period of two years before I finally let her go. With little experience managing people or running a company, I was a pathetic boss (10 years ago).

a small mistake in a job searchIf you make mistakes at work like Maria, you might coast by for a while too. Or, you could use checklists and stop making mistakes in the first place. Ever since Atul Gawande popped up with his book The Checklist Manifesto, I’ve been using checklists and encouraging my team to use them as well. In fact, now we run through a checklist when we let someone like Maria go. We also use checklists for recruiting, interviewing, and reference checking.

Would it feel demeaning to you if your boss asked you to use a check list for a simple task you’ve performed many times before? If you answered yes, imagine you’re about to have your appendix removed and the operating surgeon is known to be one of the best in the country. Does he need a checklist that starts out like this?

1. Wash your hands

Probably not. Do you want him to use it anyway? I do.

If you just graduated from college, life might appear simple. But, if you’ve been through life’s big traumas like death, divorce, moving, illness, etc., you’ll know in your bones why checklists are not for dimwits. Experts are susceptible to stress and distraction like anyone else; that’s why checklists that save lives might possibly save your job someday. Use them.

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  • Tristan Argeris

    I’m currently a college student and up until I joined college I never used a checklist and was always forgetting stuff and very disorganized. Now that I’m in college I can not afford to be forgetting assignments or important dates. Ever since I started using checklists it has become easier to be more organized and stay on track.

  • Alexis Waltemeyer

    I find checklists to be one of the most important things that get people through their day to day. As a future occupational therapist, I am aware that people can very easily forget their daily activities and may not always remember what they need to do, say, or even think. Checklists have saved my life, over and over again. How is one supposed to remember every little detail and do everything with 100%? It’s better to have a checklist and be prepared and get the job done correctly, than to believe you can do everything from memory and not succeed.
    I enjoy making checklists for everything, such as work, leisure, school, etc. Without a checklist, I would not be complete. Not in my job, school, and this would definitely have an impact on my organization.

  • Joseph Greer

    even at the level of education in the medical field, i have realized that a checklist will save an employee almost in thorough and extensive tasks. Not that surgery is the field that i want to pursue, but especially when treating patients, a checklist will be exactly what is needed in order to treat a patient thoroughly. this also is something that from day one my father has been teaching me, so that i could accomplish the tasks that he gave me at home. I was raised on a farm, and during the summer while he was at work, i would wake up everyday to a checklist of things to do before he got home. if not for this list i wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the tasks at hand effectively. typically if not for the list, i would forget the particulars of the chores, or entirely space a task.

  • Wendy Torres

    I completely agree with this article (minus the terminating Maria portion). I currently work in an Emergency Room and we live off of checks. It’s always important for us to run through a checklist and make sure we have the appropriate equipment in our trauma and code bay. In addition, people may not notice but we run through checklists when patients come in. For example, if we have a level 1 come in we: get a manual bp, expose the body, etc.

  • smkerns0

    In this lesson I can find myself relating in most ways. I have had two jobs since I was 16 one or 3 1/2 years and just now starting another one a month ago. In both of my jobs we require checklists to get the job done. Without checklists the workplace would be a mess. I first worked in a fast food place and we would use checklists to get everything done in a timely fashion without confusion. In my new job I work in a hospital as a patient escort. I have a checklist I have to go through when I go into a room for a patient and when I take them to where they are going. If I did not do this checklist it could cause harm to the patient or myself. It is always good to have checklists to teach people like Maria how to properly get things done in the workplace.

  • I completely agree that many people don’t realize the things that they are doing incorrectly and sometimes need that helping non condescending hand to make a change. Throughout my nursing program, we had SIM labs which were recorded mock affiliations with fictional patients, it was a safe environment to catch unchecked items on a list. I myself learned from the experience and definitely shaped my practice. Now as a working professional, I continue to utilize check lists and know no other way of getting throughout my day. My lists are like the time outs that need to be completed prior to surgery.

  • Katiana

    Routine tasks that you perform every day can become blurred in your memory because they are so similar day to day. These mundane tasks can still benefit from a checklist, if the steps of the task are important enough that you want to make sure they won’t be omitted.For example: I go to softball practice an average of four times per week and I have been going to this field for over five years. So at a conservative estimate, I have packed my softball bag 1000 times. Most of the time, I get it right. But still, every couple months or so, I’ll arrive at practice and will be missing something. If I’m interrupted while I’m packing my bag, or if I’m just busy thinking about something else, it’s easy to leave out my towel or post-workout sweatshirt. Once I made a checklist, it helped me avoid those frustrating mistakes. When properly conceived and used, a checklist ensures communication and confirmation. chosen for top 75 websites for your career

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About the author


In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.