Checklists are for Experts

David A. Wheeler


Some people say checklists are incredibly valuable. Others complain aobut a "checklist mentality". What's going on?

The Checklist Manifesto is an incredibly interesting book. It notes that checklists gained use when they were created by expert pilots to deal with complex modern airplanes. Many operating rooms now use checklists, so that the expert medical staff can ensure that a number of basics are done each time. Checklists now save a remarkable number of lives.

I think checklists can be very valuable, but checklists cannot replace knowledge and experience. Checklists can be very valuable - for experts.

Unfortunately, it's expensive to get people who know what they're doing. Some organizations, like the US government, have strict limitations on employee pay that are uncompetitive in some areas. There are some knowledgeable government employees, and I'm grateful for them. But when it's hard to get knowledgeable people, there's a temptation to reach for some tool to replace expertise. Checklists are a tempting approach - after all, it's obvious that experts sometimes use checklists, and it doesn't look hard.

Can checklists sometimes be useful for non-experts? Probably, sometimes, but be very careful. If the checklist items don't require any expert knowledge for simple cases, it's conceivable it could work. However, it's difficult in practice to create such checklists, and people without expertise often don't realize they're in a situation where the checklist doesn't apply. If you're trying to use a checklist to replace the need for knowledgeable people, you'll often fail.

I believe organizations should first focus on getting people with the right expertise (and if they can't, train them). Checklists can then help them be more effective. But trying to create yet another checklist for people who don't know what they're doing is usually a waste of time, and in fact, is a diversion from what the organization should be doing.

Feel free to see my home page at You may also want to look at my paper Why OSS/FS? Look at the Numbers! and my book on how to develop secure programs.

(C) Copyright 2017 David A. Wheeler. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike version 3.0 or later (CC-BY-SA-3.0+).