Does It Look Like an Airplane?

As a kid, I always wanted to become a pilot. When I was 17 years old, I began to take flight lessons and eventually went on to earn both my private pilot certificate and my commercial pilot certificate. Along that path, I learned the value of checklists. Good checklists can save your life in aviation. Good checklists can also help you build a successful career in any field.

Over dinner one evening, the author and speaker Brian Tracy told me about a book called The Checklist Manifesto. He shared with me how many of the large companies that he works with use checklists in many areas of their success. Being a pilot, I identified with the idea and immediately ordered a copy of the book. It is a fantastic resource.

You can use simple checklists for yourself and your team to help ensure repeatable quality. The breakthrough is in realizing that even really smart people need checklists to do the work at which they are already very good. A seasoned pilot with 20 years of experience continues to use a checklist every time he starts the engines or takes off. A heart surgeon uses a checklist every time she stands over her patient and begins the procedure. Experts, doing what they do every day, use checklists routinely. It is a good thing.

Perhaps the best "checklist" advice came to me from a retired pilot. He happened to spend a few hours with me one day to be my instructor for a training flight. As we walked out to the plane, he grabbed my arm and stopped me. The plane was still a ways off. He said, "Look up. Does it look like an airplane?" I thought it was a strange question, but since I had such reverence for this instructor, I stood still and pondered his question. I began to see things differently.

He challenged me that day to take my checklist to an entirely new level. I had the physical checklist in my hand and it had all the boxes to be checked prior to the flight. Yet he was adding an additional level of wisdom. He prodded, "Does it have both wings? Does it have wheels? Is it leaking oil or fuel? Does it have a propeller?" On one hand you could laugh at those questions; on the other, he had actual examples of people who tried to fly planes without both wings, without wheels or without oil or fuel. People sometimes miss the big picture.

At Benefitfocus, we have worked hard to periodically ask ourselves the bigger question. Such as, "Does the room setup look like a Benefitfocus event?" We like to set up a room a certain way so that guests have everything they need, they get the information that they need and they have a sense of who we are as a company. We use the concept in many ways, and when we make mistakes, it is generally because we skipped a step on the checklist or did not stand back and ask ourselves if the thing we were about to do looked complete. We then work to incorporate the step we missed to improve a procedure or process. The checklist gets better.

Try and develop some simple checklists for your team. Help people realize that a checklist is a sign of strength, not a crutch. When you do, add in the very wise step of pausing and asking if it has two wings, some fuel and a prop. "Does it look like an airplane?"