Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.

-The Checklist Manifesto

In large projects with many moving parts, professionals have a lot to remember. Hundreds, sometimes even thousands of details make up a completed project.

One of the main tools we use in project management over at Jay Nine Incorporated is the simple checklist. All of our projects and tasks have checklists associated with them to confirm crucial working parts aren’t forgotten in the haze of an ongoing project.

The checklist offers the reassurance of verification while instilling a discipline for higher performance. A checklist removes the “you should have known” variable and provides a concrete explanation of the project requirements and important aspects of the project.

For example, we have a “Website Launch Checklist” that includes the following requirements:

  • Check that all basic SEO items are included
  • Confirm 301 redirects are in order
  • Ensure loading speed is normal (below 3 seconds and at least 70/100 on Google Page Speed)
  • Test the 404 Page and make sure that works
  • Test all contact forms and confirm they are working properly
  • Confirm the website has a privacy policy
  • Ensure all web servers are in the proper time zone.
  • Ensure the website works on all browsers and devices indicated in the contract

Some of these may seem trivial, some things may seem missing to the trained eye, but these are core features that we’ve seen missed in multiple projects (at both our company and other companies).

Checklists also serve a second purpose…

Have you ever heard the story of David Lee Roth and the contract clause of “No Brown M&M’s?”

David Lee Roth is often mocked for having a clause in his contract that stipulated he had to have a bowl of M&M’s in his dressing room–with all of the brown ones removed.

In the Checklist Manifesto, it’s explained:

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors—whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.’ So just as a little test, buried somewhere in the middle of the rider, would be article 126, the no-brown-M&M’s clause. “When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,” he wrote, “well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error… Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.” These weren’t trifles… The mistakes could be life threatening. In Colorado, the band found the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements and the staging would have fallen through the arena floor.

This was a checklist. It also perfectly explains the philosophy behind using checklists in large productions:

The no-brown-M&M’s was an easy way to find larger issues under the hood. It was a quick way to determine there were serious issues before a serious issue occurs. In our checklist, If we go to a “completed” website and see that Google Analytics isn’t working we know there are bigger issues. We know the checklist wasn’t followed, and can go from there.

The checklist does not discount the importance of expertise and human input. It’s just a way to help our brains remember the trivial (but nonetheless crucial and often forgotten) pieces of an ongoing project. It’s also a way we can have multiple people with different levels of expertise working harmoniously towards “perfection” in a given task or project.