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The Return to Checklists


Tim Bryce

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I recently read an interesting book review in "Business Week" magazine regarding "The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right" by Dr. Atul Gawande. Evidently, Gawande has discovered the beneficial use of checklists, not only in the operating room of hospitals but elsewhere. He observes that due to the unusual complexity of today's tasks, such as performing major surgery, something as simple as a checklist can greatly reduce accidents, both large and small, which kills thousands of Americans a year.

The concept of checklists is certainly not new, as they have been used in the aerospace industry for years. However, they have sharply diminished over the years as computers have crept into just about every aspect of our lives. Nonetheless, as Gawande points out, this low-tech approach is a viable cost-effective solution for attacking complicated procedures.

The late Les Matthies, the "Dean of Systems," is generally regarded as the father of the "Playscript" procedure, an effective writing technique. "Playscript" had a profound effect on creating people procedures and the development of checklists. To understand "Playscript" one has to understand Les' background. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley during the Depression with a degree in Journalism. Being a writer, he tried his hand at writing Broadway plays. However, work was hard to come by during this period and when World War II broke out, Les was recruited by an aircraft manufacturer in the Midwest to systematize the production of aircraft. Relying on his experience as a writer, he devised the "Playscript" technique for developing procedures. Basically, Les wrote a procedure like a script to a play; there are three parts to a Playscript procedure:

1. PURPOSE SECTION - Containing the Business Purpose of the procedure.

2. SETUP SECTION - Listing all of the inputs, outputs, and files to be used during the execution of the procedure.

3. OPERATION SECTION - Listing all of the instructions required to perform the procedure. Each operation is described using action verbs and nouns. Les stressed the following guidelines:

* Avoid needless complexity in word choice and sentence structure. Express an idea in the simplest possible way.

* Begin each Operation with an action verb.

* DO NOT begin the first sentence of the operational step with a conditional clause, such as "if," "when" or "should." Begin the sentence with "compare" or "evaluate" as a verb, followed by sub-clauses; for example:

COMPARE the value of "A" to "B":

A. If "A" is greater than "B", go to step 4.

B. If "B" is greater than "A", go to step 16.

Here is an example of a set of operations using "Playscript":

1. Logon to computer using the standard logon procedure.

2. Access "Order Processing System" screens by double-clicking on the "Order Processing" icon on the computer desktop.

3. Select the "Order Processing Maintenance" icon to invoke the "Order Processing Screen."

A. Enter your PASSWORD when prompted by the computer.

4. Select the type of data entry you wish to perform from the window's action-bar:

A. If you wish to enter a customer's order, select the "Orders" pull-down-choice from the "Customer" action-bar-choice. Go to step 6 for additional instructions.

B. If you wish to query the status of a customer's order, select the "Status" pull-bar-choice from the "Customer" action-bar-choice. Go to step 8 for additional instructions.

C. For all other queries, proceed to the next step (5).

In the end, "Playscript" represents an effective checklist for performing complicated procedures. For details on "Playscript," see my article, "The Language of Systems" from Aug. 22, 2005

As an aside, it is a little known fact that Matthies' "Playscript" was the technique used to devise computer program procedural languages such as COBOL, FORTRAN, and PL/1.

I find it rather amusing Les' work is resurfacing again. Then again, maybe the lesson here is not everything has to be conquered by the computer, that simpler less-expensive solutions are available to solve complicated problems. As for me, I guess what goes around, comes around.

"Systems will fail more for the lack of administrative procedures than well written computer procedures."
- Bryce's Law

(A tip of the hat to Dick Webster in Columbus)

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Copyright 2010 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2010-06-04 11:07:04 in Personal Articles

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