“OK, I need to copy these files over here. Then I have to rename these other files to. . . oh, I can’t remember. Here it is on this scrap of paper. I knew I had it somewhere.”
I was a twenty-two year old architectural intern with a freshly minted B.Arch degree.
“OK, once that’s done I have to. . . um, do something else. . . Oh right, I need to write up a transmittal and print a PDF. Now where’s that transmittal template?”
This was my first job in an architect’s office. I’d been in the office six months and was working on a medical renovation project.
“I really need to get organized. Last time I did this I forgot to include the sheet list. That was embarrassing.”
I was fortunate to have a patient project manager who gave me extra responsibility and, more importantly, the time to learn from my mistakes.
“You know Michael, you really need a checklist for this”, he said.
I looked at him like he had three heads.
“A checklist? I’m an architect, not a pilot. A checklist would only stifle my creativity”, I said as I puffed up my chest.
Did I mention my project manager was patient? He gave me a sympathetic look.
“Save your creativity. We’re talking about issuing drawings, not designing the Guggenheim. A checklist will save you a lot of hassle and keep the owner from calling me when you screw up.”
He got me. I knew he was right.
“Um. . . good point. I’ll get started on that.”
I learned that lesson the hard way
Why use checklists?
Checklists are simple but effective tools for ensuring things get done right. The beauty of a checklist is that it externalizes a process into the essential steps required to reach a desired outcome. Checklists standardize a process and make it repeatable and predictable.
Pilots use checklists for their pre-flight check because they’re effective. When you have lots of steps to perform, a checklist ensures they all get done. You don’t need to think through each step. You simply follow along and execute the steps as they’re laid out in the list.
Checklists often get a bad rap in creative fields like architecture because they prescribe what to do and how to do it. There’s no room for creativity in a checklist. That said, a lot of the work we do is fairly routine and often tedious. Think about issuing a set of drawings. Or checking floor plans. Or coordinating MEP and structure. These tasks aren’t rocket science but they do require attention to detail. It’s easy to miss things because there’s a lot of information to process.
Creating a checklist is fairly simple to do. It doesn’t take a lot of time. Simply write out each step as if you were instructing someone on how to perform the task. Once you’ve outlined the steps, run through them a few times to make sure you’ve captured all the details.
Once you create a checklist, you have a valuable tool for ensuring things get done right. You’ve offloaded a lot of the effort required to keep track of all those steps. Now you can put that brain power to better use rather than trying to remember all the little tasks you need to do.
A Checklist Manifesto
Atul Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and author of The Checklist Manifesto. Through his research, he found checklists to be extremely effective tools for managing complex tasks. Gawande illustrates his points with case studies of how checklists have been successfully implemented in fields such as medicine and construction, where one missed step can spell disaster. It’s a good read and reinforces the value of the humble checklist.
Checklists for architects
I’ve developed checklists for certain processes for my work, even trivial tasks like publishing a blog post or issuing a set of drawings. Every process benefits from a checklist. First, it forces you to break the process down into its individual components. Second, it takes a lot of the variability out of the process. Third, once the process has been externailized, it can be performed by others. If you have a certain way of doing things, take the effort to create a checklist. This ensures others understand the way you want things done.
Here’s a list of processes you could develop your own checklists for:
- Issuing drawings sets to the owner and contractor.
- Sending background drawings and models to consultants.
- Setting up rendering views in your 3D software.
- Archiving a project upon completion.
- Doing a punchlist walk-through
- Recording and issuing meeting minutes.
- Managing a project coordination meeting.
Want some more examples? Eric Reinholdt includes an excellent chapter on standard operating procedures (SOPs) in his book, Architect + Entrepreneur. I highly recommend it.
How about you?
What tasks have you developed checklists for? Or which of your tasks could benefit from a checklist? Leave a comment below. I’m compiling a list of checklists and would love your input.