Checklists: Simple yet powerful tools

Jan 02, 2022

Often overlooked, the simple checklist can empower your people to coordinate more, reduce mistakes, and focus on bigger picture items.

Perhaps your firm experienced a slow-down over the last year or so. If not, then congratulations on your winning strategy (or plain good luck). The question is, did you take advantage of a surplus in staffing and tackle some long-standing goals? Did you use this breather to bolster your company’s standards and practices? It would have been a perfect time to do so, but it’s never too late to start.

Compared to other industries, AEC firms tend to spend less on research and development (used broadly here to mean the creation or improvement of technology or processes). Our fees are competitive, and deadlines are demanding, leaving little time or money for R&D. Yet, taking advantage of lulls during recessions, or even between projects, can enhance a company’s future profitability, help protect against litigation, and improve employee morale. Providing updated tools, processes, and training is imperative for every firm.

Take, for example, the checklist. Often overlooked, the simple checklist is a proven tool for better outcomes, which is why they are used extensively in medicine and aviation. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande describes the 1935 demonstration flight of the Boeing Model 299. The plane was a favorite in the running for the next long-range bomber for the Army. Shortly after takeoff, the plane stalled and crashed, killing two of the five crew members on board. The ensuing investigation revealed that the experienced pilot had forgotten to release the gust locks, which hold certain flaps in place while the plane is on the ground. Instead of additional training, those involved created a checklist, possibly the first of its kind. The history of the Model 299 was later solidified as it evolved into the B-17, but the initial tragedy in its development was never forgotten.

Perhaps your company already has checklists. Is the usage rate high? Are they regularly updated? Do you promote checklist training and discussions? In addition, a culture of improvement can be extended to software and many other design or construction tools. If you’re frequently “reinventing the wheel,” a standardized process of creating and reviewing tools could save you time and lead to fewer errors.

For example, years ago I noticed that our engineers would often start from scratch when they began a certain type of analysis model. Other times, they would generate a template from a previous project. In the first case, time was wasted by applying our custom settings for definitions, printing, etc. In the second case, there was less transparency over which settings were carried over. As a result, I created a template file that has since saved many dozens of hours of work, with the added benefit of standardizing our inputs for better control over the process.

In the past, I’ve heard criticism of over-standardization. It often came from people who, in the same breath, might have touted the advantages of the slide-rule, nostalgic for “the way we’ve always done it.” Fear of your people turning into non-thinking automatons is inaccurate and misses the point. First, our industry is getting more complicated every year. Provided they are not “black boxes,” tools that are done well can actually provide valuable instruction, while helping to reduce mistakes. Second, tools created for the most repetitive tasks empower your people to focus on bigger picture items, coordinate more, and do extensive quality control.

If you’re convinced, then you might wonder where to start. I recommend these steps:

  1. Assign a taskmaster. Someone needs to drive the discussion or decision-making for areas of focus, methods for creating tools, sharing tasks, etc.
  2. Establish rules for creating, checking, and updating your tools. Place them in a shared location where they can be accessed and updated. Determine how to indicate version history, record changes, etc. Determine how they are vetted and approved.
  3. Start with areas of life-safety and potential litigation. This could include jobsite safety, common code requirements, quality control reviews, etc.
  4. Shift focus to areas of highest use or need. Which tools will be used frequently and provide the biggest gains in efficiency? Create or update these first for the most impact.
  5. Consider one-off or less common areas of need, if you can maintain the necessary quality control over the development of these tools.
  6. Continue to engage your people and revisit the process. This is an evolving task that should improve over time, but it will require the “buy-in” of your staff.
  7. Focus on more important things and enjoy the returns on your investment. 

Matthew Poling is an associate with BASE, based out of its Florida office. Connect with him on LinkedIn and contact him at

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