Six Types of Checklists

Justin Fox of Harvard Business Review has an interesting piece trying to codify types of checklists.

He suggests that Atul Gawande, author of the terrific The Checklist Manifesto, doesn’t offer a “checklist for checklists.” I think Gawande actually does cover this material, though I suppose he doesn’t bring it out as a checklist. I’ve referred to it in the past in articles such as these notes from a Gawande seminar.

Here are Fox’s categories in summary:

  1. Task checklists, step by step through procedures that must be followed in order, such as preparing an airplane for takeoff.
  2. Troubleshooting checklists, also common in aviation, where lives depend on this stuff — though to my mind this is just another use of a task or step-by-step checklist.
  3. Coordination lists (Fox’s term) or submittal schedules (Gawande’s example from the construction industry), akin to what in Legal Project Management I call a Communications Plan.
  4. Discipline checklists, a list of things you need to do or check that don’t necessarily have a required sequence. Most of the LPM checklists I’ve been posting are of this type. I don’t like Fox’s name; I prefer Project Checklist.
  5. To-do list, which Gawande doesn’t mention but which Fox notes is really a checklist. I think a to-do list is really a special case of a discipline checklist, although (a) I like the idea of pointing it out specifically and (b) unlike most discipline lists, it’s not a failure to not get through the entire list, at least with a personal to-do list. Some folks do, though years of leadership observation, practice, and coaching suggest that most people don’t — and that doesn’t cause them to fail. I would put a professional to-do list back in the discipline list bucket rather than calling it out separately, however.

Fox leaves out one type of checklist that Gawande spends considerable time on, though Gawande, unfamiliar with project management per se, didn’t name it: a Gantt chart, a/k/a a “project schedule.” In the construction industry, because every single task is known — complexity, duration, resourcing, relationships to other tasks — a Gantt chart can indeed function as a checklist. In fields where tasks are not fully known, Gantt charts tend to create a false sense of knowledge — if it’s on the chart, it must be right. In the legal world, e-discovery processing is amenable to Gantt charts as checklists in a way that few other functions are. E-discovery, too, is the one area in which professional project management separate from case management is becoming de rigueur.

I’d break out a checklist taxonomy this way myself for Legal Project Management:

  • Procedural Checklists, steps that must be followed in order.
  • Communications Checklists, associated with both scheduled communications — e.g., billing and status — and unscheduled difficult conversations — e.g., scope discussions.
  • Project Checklists, steps that must be covered but which have some flexibility in the order in which they’re covered. Project schedule, task lists, and work breakdown structures are checklists of this type.

I’m not sure how much this taxonomy matters, except in reminding people that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to checklists or other tools of the trade. Use what works — and try different approaches to expand your capabilities.

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