Do you use checklists for your project management? Though each project is unique, checklists can be helpful and can simplify the starting phase and the duration of a project. Work processes can be structured and documented with checklists. They make it easier to look at tasks, show possible paths to solutions for problems and help make sure nothing is forgotten. Still, the implementation of checklists in some project organizations is laughed at. Why?
When do pilots use checklists?
Before we consider checklists in project management, a peek over the fence: in aviation, a checklist a set of instructions in the form of a list that pilots use before and during flights. They provide instructions for tasks that have to be completed and tests that absolutely must be carried out in a specific order.
One would assume that experienced pilots can recite these checklists, nevertheless, they are obliged to read these instructions out loud before every flight. It is a misconception that these checklists are only used at the beginning in order to be ready for take-off. Even lists for emergency and exceptional situations are valued highly in the aviation industry. With checklists, forgetting essential measures due to stress, routine or distractions and the catastrophic effects can be hindered. A report from the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation about a plane accident with a small airliner outlined that checklists not having been used was part of the reason for the tragic outcome.¹
Do you still remember the spectacular emergency landing of an airbus on the Hudson River in New York? In an interview with Air & Space², Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the aircraft, said of an emergency checklist:
Air & Space: “Does the Airbus operator’s manual have a procedure for ditching?”
Chesley Sullenberger: “Yes.”
Air & Space: “So your first officer would have found that procedure and had a checklist to go through for the ditching procedure?”
Chesley Sullenberger: “Not in this case. Time would not allow it. The higher priority procedure to follow was for the loss of both engines. The ditching would have been far secondary to that. Not only did we not have time to go through a ditching checklist, we didn’t have time to even finish the checklist for loss of thrust in both engines. That was a three-page checklist, and we didn’t even have time to finish the first page. That’s how time-compressed this was.”
What does this mean for your project management? Or, to put it another way: in which areas of project management can you use checklists efficiently?
Where can checklists be employed in project management?
In many organizations there are defined standards for project management, process models and rules. In such cases, checklists can help to illustrate these processes transparently and to give the people handling the process essential clues to follow.
Processes that are always repeated at the beginning of a project, for example, can be processed easier, in that one can use checklists to present existing information, like the inclusions of essential stakeholders or the confirmation of risks as advanced information. On the one hand, the work can be simplified and on the other hand it also offers a certain frame of security.
Of course, there are also critiques or reservations about using checklists, because many users are afraid of over-bureaucratizing and limiting flexibility. This fear is justified when an aid is turned into an incontestable template, which should be stopped when it comes to the available regulation of a methodical process. Instead of dogmatically implementing the available checklists, the user should critically dissect the construction and contents of the checklists and try to constantly improve them, to better adapt them to the existing conditions. This is above all valid for organizations that conduct many different projects.
The PRINCE2 health check as a methodical example
In the original literature of the PRINCE2 model of AXELOS “Manage successful projects with PRINCE2,” a so-called health check is described in Attachment E. Although the health check is by no means complete, it is well suited as an aid and a diagnostic tool and supports project managers in observing all the essential aspects of PRINCE2.
The health check describes fourteen main questions in the PRINCE2 Process preparation of a project:
|Question||Yes / No|
|1||Have the following roles in the project management team been allocated:|
|d||Supplier representative – if needed at this point in time|
|f||Team manager – if needed at this point in time|
|h||Change impact – if needed at this point in time|
|2||Are powers, availabilities and credibilities of the memebers of the steering committee enough to steer the project?|
|3||Are the stakeholders of the project appropriately represented in the steering committee?|
|4||Are role descriptions of all important roles available?|
|5||Have the appointed people confirmed their understanding?|
|6||Has a project diary been created?|
|7||Has the experience protocol been created?|
|8||Have experiences from similar previous projects been identified and connected?|
|9||If the organization is conducting a project like this for the first time, have experiences of comparable external projects been collected?|
|10||Has the project description been created?|
|11||Is there a business case draft?|
|12||Has a product description of the project end product been created?|
|13||Has the project solution approach been decided?|
|14||Is there a phase plan for the initiation phase?|
The fourteen questions query the results of the activities in the process “Preparation of a project.” The questions can be answered with “Yes” or “No,” which is not sufficient for optimal project documentation. Above all for a “no” it should be noted here why there is no defined result for a question.
The health check is a good example of the advantages that can arise from the use of checklists. Did you consider all points when preparing the project? Checklists help work processes to be structured and make sure that aspects are not forgotten. What’s more, the health check can also be implemented as a diagnostic instrument, for example, to carry out a project assessment or to determine the current state of the documentation, i.e., to identify any weaknesses.
Checklists can be very sensible in project management and can be used in many areas and phases. With checklists, you can better understand the initial situation of a project with a problem description and a problem and origin analysis. Checklists can help with project organization and team casting. They can be implemented as communication aids for conversations with teams and with individuals or at the end of a project for the team resolution and the documentation of lessons learned. There are many possibilities for the implementation of checklists. What is important is that checklists should make working in projects easier. They shouldn’t lead to an overhead or a burden. It is also important that checklists are subject to their own life cycle, which means they should always be questioned, expanded, reduced or completely discarded as instruments.
 BFU report (in German): https://www.bfu-web.de/DE/Publikationen/Untersuchungsberichte/2010/Bericht_10_3X004_C425_Muenchen.pdf?__blob=publicationFile
 Interview with Chesley Sullenberger by Air & Space: http://www.airspacemag.com/as-interview/aamps-interview-sullys-tale-53584029/