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Step 1: Use a Checklist

13 May 2013

When you're about to engage in a risky activity, such as flying an airplane, it's wise to be prepared. The cost of a mistake may be measured in lives. Thankfully, aviators have figured out a simple but effective means to keep planes flying safely. It's called a preflight checklist, and there's one for every aircraft.

Below is the Cockpit section of a Cessna 152 preflight checklist:

Aircraft docs            Check
Control wheel lock    Remove
Hobbs/Tach            Check/Record
Ignition                    Off
Master switch        On
Fuel quantity indicators    Check
Flaps                            Down
Master switch                Off
Fuel shutoff valve            On

The complete list contains eight sections (cockpit, fuselage and empennage, right wing, nose, left wing, before starting engine, starting engine, before takeoff), and a total of 80 items to be checked before the wheels should leave the ground. (It also contains checklists for those scary moments when things go wrong, like engine failure.) Keep in mind that the Cessna 152 is just a single-prop plane with fixed landing gear. It's about as simple a motorized aircraft as you'll find, and yet there's a long list of things to look after before each flight. Imagine if you had to remember the complete list. Could you do it flawlessly, every time? Would you want to even try?

Checklists have proven to be highly effective, not just in aviation but in other fields as well. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, author Dr. Atul Gawande describes how one doctor dealt with patient infections that resulted from the improper administration of IVs. By introducing checklists in the OR, the infection rate fell from 11 percent to 0 percent, saving many lives and millions of dollars. This led to widespread use of checklists in hospitals.

Why not apply this idea to Agile project management? After all, if you're the ScrumMaster, you're about to go on a journey with your team that will last many months and cost the project's sponsors a lot of money. Lives may not be at risk, but a failed project can lead to missed business opportunities, and it certainly doesn't enhance the team's reputation. Suffice it to say that failure is bad, and it's best to do everything possible to achieve success, especially if the remedy is really simple.

Sprint planning is a critical Scrum ritual that I've seen conducted in a variety of ways, and with widely varying degrees of success. If you're a ScrumMaster, you know very well how a sprint planning meeting should run. There are premeeting steps that must be taken, such as working with the product owner to groom the backlog, getting high-level estimates from the team, booking a conference room, and picking up the doughnuts (please don't forget this step if I'm on your team).

During the meeting, you'll propose an agenda that will include having the product owner describe the goal of the sprint, selecting high-priority stories, decomposing them into tasks, estimating tasks, assigning them to resources. But wait — did the team remember to use the feedback from the last retrospective? Did you get updates on vacation plans? Did you update the storyboard? There's a lot to get done in a few hours' time, and in the heat of the moment, you may forget a few things. Those forgotten steps can be costly.

Try this experiment: Start your next sprint planning meeting with a checklist that consists of an ordered set of essential steps. Post it on the wall at the start of the meeting, and review the steps with the team. Then go through those steps in order, and check them off as each one is completed. When the last item is checked, your meeting is adjourned.

Why is this so different from including an agenda in the meeting invitation? Isn't that a checklist? Yes, that's an entirely fair question; but how many times have you actually checked off each item in your agenda in front of the team? I think the difference with a checklist is that you establish the expectation of formality and structure by going through every step and actually checking it off in dramatic fashion. This illustrates the team's progress almost like a histogram, which helps the team gauge how far it has come and how far it has to go.

Last, you may want to save your checklist as a reminder of the steps you went through. It will come in handy in your sprint retrospective meeting. Perhaps more important, other teams may decide to try your checklists, and this will bring consistency of execution to other projects.

Thanks to Latha Krishnaswamy for the inspiration for this article.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 5 (1 ratings)


Rex Lester, CSM, 5/16/2013 2:55:53 AM
Thank you for reminding us that something simple and effective can work so well. Like all the best tools this is simple to do and proved to be effective.
There are probably three lists to consider for each Scrum event i.e.
ΓÇó Preparation checklist,
ΓÇó Checklist during the event
ΓÇó Checklist after the event - I guess if you get the first two things right the third becomes redundant except for reflecting on how each event went and updating your checklists?

I'm off to write up some checklists..
Subhendu Chattopadhyay, CSP,CSM, 5/16/2013 11:58:00 PM
Nice article.
Gurpreet Singh, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 5/17/2013 1:18:34 PM
Nice article! Simple and right on the point!
Alan Dayley, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 5/23/2013 3:29:53 PM
Checklists are a good beginner's practice because they help us learn the basics of a particular process or activity. In my coaching practice I have found them to be damaging to on-going improvement. If you use checklists, make sure to review them often, perhaps each time you finish using them and feel free to change them as needed. Too many people and companies turn checklists into unchangeable policies and don't alter them even when some steps no longer provide value, as if the check list means thinking is no longer required. I personally promote the ideas of "thoughtlists" to remind people to think about what they are doing as they go:
Scott Friend, CSM,CSPO, 6/25/2013 5:54:34 PM
As a pilot myself, I can totally relate. There are many parallels I can find between scrum and flight planning also. However, one important thing about check lists is that they are "check" list and not "do" lists. Many new pilots will use a check list as a do list. Experienced pilots will "do" by way of a "flow". But, a check list is a great tool to verify that things were completed. I like the idea, especially for new teams, but not as a do-list. Then again, we could just have each of the "tasks" on stickies and remove them when they are completed, can't we?

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