One of the mythologies created by the safety industry concerns the effectiveness of checklists. Yes, checklists are useful and helpful. The Checklist Manifesto by Gawande is a reasonable read on the positives and negatives of checklists and can be downloaded here: https://www.tribalmind.co/S3/tribalmind-prod/Discoveries/gU31-m5F0E2sviPfDlZrdQ.pdf
However, Gawande only comes at the challenges of checklists from one Disciplinary angle but a Transdisciplinary investigation sheds much stronger light on the challenges of checklisting.
Checklisting is a participle that describes a Mentalitie (disposition and orientation) in how to tackle risk. There is nothing wrong with a checklist but checklisting as an orientation is unhelpful.
Of course, the checklist in itself is not a neutral or an objective object. All checklists, models, ideas, slogans, symbols and checklists in safety are invested with the worldview of the designer. Even a simple shopping checklist of goods to buy is biased in design by the person who wrote it.
There can never be separation of designer from what is designed.
All things designed hold the bias of the designer and if that designer is an engineer (https://safetyrisk.net/an-engineering-dreamworld/) you can be sure it includes no thought for the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR). Indeed, it is most likely that very little thought has been given at all in design to the holistic ergonomics or ecological characteristics of how humans make decisions. This is one reason why the metaphor of ‘engineering resilience’ is so silly. Resilience cannot be ‘engineered’ even in a system.
I often make checklists, we have one on our fridge. Whenever we run out of anything in the fridge or pantry we habitually put it on the list and this will be purchased on the next shopping trip. It’s simply a blank piece of paper and a magnet that holds a pen and we add to the list based on needs and wants. Of course when we actually do the shopping it seems this checklist serves only as a guide. We never treat this list as an accurate scientific document. There are always things we see and feel in shopping that affect our decisions about what to purchase. There are always those prominently placed objects at the end of aisles on ‘special’ or ‘sale’ that capture our interest and influence our decisions beyond the limits of the checklist. But the system works by and large because we start with a blank piece of paper and develop what we need as we go along. But we are never locked into accuracy into the checklist nor the limits of the checklist itself. It’s not how our household works.
Checklists whilst useful – serve us, we don’t serve them.
Unfortunately, over time the checklist in the safety industry has been made the panacea for everything. Along with the 10 Cardinal rules the checklist has been deified as the ultimate in safety outcomes. In the end safety is determined by the completion of a checklist not the way one tackles risk. It seems everyone wants to find the perfect checklist for a risk assessment or safe work method, which of course doesn’t exist. Poor olde Safety once again looking to objects as an end in themselves not subjects to understand checklisting.
Checklisting in safety has become more than just an obsession, it has become an addiction. Perhaps this explains why the developer of iAuditor became a millionaire overnight (https://safetyculture.com/iauditor/ ). iAuditor brings together all the myths of Safety into one spot; the love of technology and the addiction of checklistsing. All wonderfully packaged in ‘safetyculture’ mythology that has nothing to do with safety or culture. The last place I would go to understand culture and safety is the ‘safetyculture’ business.
The clever thing about the founder of iAuditor Luke Anear (https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/management/how-luke-anears-safetyculture-will-hit-unicorn-status-20181203-h18myy ) was that he recognized the checklisting addiction and tapped into it. But the checklist is pure mythology, it serves as a symbol but cannot cope when its methodology is questioned.
Checklists don’t create safety, if anything they create the illusion of safety.
The Downsides of Checklisting
So lets look briefly at the downsides of checklisting.
· The main downside of all checklisting is the reduction of critical thinking. One simply lets the designer of the checklist tell you what matters. Once everything is checked off in comes that emotional peace of mind convincing you that everything must now be safe.
· Checklisting satisfies the fundamentals quest for certainty in the safety. Once we hold a checklist we now feel certain and safe.
· Checklisting makes it difficult to think outside of the box, once the checklist has been instituted it limits creativity and flexibility. The checklist seems to have its own inbuilt creation of security and once its in place such feelings of security work against not using a checklist.
· The checklist itself stifles imagination and creates a co-dependence to checklisting. Watch as people struggle to tackle risk when the checklist is taken away. They don’t know what to do. Morseo, they have been taught not to trust themselves, as supposedly some expert designed the checklist.
· Checklisting diminishes the need for doubt and encourages overconfidence. The symbolic (myth) notion of completing the checklist creates a ‘feeling’ that think about risk has been completed.
· As the checklist gets completed and the last page is closed on the document in comes that heuristic called ‘set and forget’. Checklisting enables this feeling by the simple physical process of closing the document. Closed equals completed.
· As with all forms of repetition for humans, checklisting creates ‘tick and flick’ and a desensitization to creative and critical thinking. Once the checklist becomes automatic and unconscious it can then be performed by rote. In reality it is no longer needed but such is the insecurity created by checklistsing, we cannot let go.
· Unfortunately, checklisting feeds on itself. It fills the void and safety people have been made afraid of the void. The last thing a safety person is conditioned to do is to trust their instinct and venture out without anything telling them how to think. How strange this industry that privileges the mechanistic thinking of an engineer over other forms of knowing.
· The checklist has now become symbolic (the myth) for the safety industry. The checklist is the identity all in safety share. What this does is make the checklist unquestioned. The last thing Safety wants is to check and question the checklist. How dare we question an engineer’s checklist and ask if it humanises people tackling risk?
· The checklist by its nature diminishes the ability to ask open questions, make independent observations and to listen to what people say unconsciously. Checklists tend not to set up a conversation but rather close such opportunities to step beyond the checklist.
SPoR and Complementing Checklists
In SPoR we don’t throw the baby checklist out with the checklist baby bathwater but neither do we encourage immature co-dependence on checklisting. Instead in SPoR, we create tools that complement checklists that use models that are more open and depend on skilled conversations, helping, listening and collaborating that don’t use checklists. One such tool we call ‘iCue Listening’. The iCue Listening model is a simple and very practical matrix that serves as a surface on which to concept map responses to open questions. The model simply gives one a surface to concept map what one hears in Workspace, Headspace and Grouspace. See Figure One. iCue Listening.
Figure One. iCue Listening.
Most people who engage in SPoR education and training take about 20 sessions to become competent in using the iCue Listening model. Most safety people have to start with skill development in asking open questions and reflective listening. In the last 20 years of doing such training I have never met one safety person who comes close to being able to ask open questions and listen.
In most cases it takes 10 sessions to wean safety people off the co-dependence and addiction to the checklist and to trust their own perception to go beyond the checklist to which they have become addicted. The penny drops when the realization comes that they have a checklist addiction and that their feelings of insecurity have created in a lack of trust in themselves even though they may have 40 or more years in the industry. An iCue Listeing Concept map can look like Figure Two. iCue Listening Map
Figure Two. iCue Listening Map
Asking open questions and listening is not magic although after many years of doing SPoR it seems that Safety thinks it is.
Without exception, everyone who becomes effective at iCue Listening raves about how it has brought new insight into how they now tackle risk.
I will leave you with one testimony from one of the people who undertook the free SPoR Introduction and discovered the freedom of going beyond checklisting:
‘Wow, what a learning experience! In these short but intense on-line sessions I have learnt about many concepts and tools that I feel will help me to be a wiser professional. Some sessions have clarified what I had partially known before and had trouble properly applying. One example of this relates to the concept of ‘Drift to Failure’. I have in the past used this concept to explain how an organization’s risk management effectiveness decreased over time but my understanding of why this occurred was not complete.
Now with the concepts that all humans are fallible, that we are always in a state of some failure, and that individuals are constantly emerging, I feel I better understand how an organization of people can learn from each other to fulfill their goals. Also, impactful for me was the clarification that people are always in a state of tension trying to balance their experiential dialectics. They act with faith and hope clearly not knowing what the current uncertainties may bring. In the incident analysis method I use, the principles described in the SPoR Telos model combined with the idea of dialectic tension are hugely valuable in understanding an individual’s perceptions, beliefs, and psychological preconditions when they are deciding how to do or not do something’.
John Sherban, P.Eng., FS Eng (TÜV Rheinland)
Systemic Risk Management Inc.