Professions such as aviation, construction, and medicine depend on checklists to ensure safety and to make sure that the steps for a task are accomplished in the right order and at the right time. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande details how checklists are integral to the aviation industry; pilots follow a multitude of checklists to ensure the safety of their passengers and to protect the multimillion dollar planes they are entrusted to fly. They and other professionals use checklists to walk through complicated processes that require accuracy, consistency, and an unemotional completion of sometimes menial tasks to accomplish a goal. Medical communicators also need checklists. While most medical communicators are not flying airplanes, we are constantly being interrupted by emails, phone calls, and the need to attend meetings. At the same time, our systems and software are regularly being updated, often requiring us to change our processes and priorities. Our responsibilities increase on a daily basis, and flexibility is a required trait. But how can we continue to be productive and provide quality deliverables under these conditions?
At Med Communications, the editors need to adapt to our rapidly changing processes, systems, and software, as well as the various styles and formats required for the many types of documents we see. We do that by using a variety of checklists. Editing checklists are created and tested to ensure quality and consistency for particular types of documents. For instance, the bulk of our work is editing standard response (SR) letters/documents for our client’s many products. Our SR editing checklist starts with information we use to track metrics on our tasks: the product, document owner, SR number, number of pages, if it’s a rush, the due date and completion date, and time spent on it. Every month, we gather our numbers for the client, but we also use this information to help estimate for other projects, taking into account the many variables, including the complexity of certain products, the length of documents, and author preferences. Because we have gone through a number of document management systems with this client, we also use the checklist to remind us of the current steps for downloading documents from the system, details we need to check while in the system, and steps for uploading the document back into the system, with all of the right information in the right places. The bulk of the editing checklist consists of formatting and style items that don’t change much and are easy to address in the first pass of the editing process. Formatting and style items are spelled out and examples are provided when necessary. In this way, editors can quickly glance at the checklist and know that for a particular project, we only list the first 3 authors in a reference or we use certain heading styles. After moving through the items in the checklist, the editor, finally, can focus on the larger task of actually editing the document. Just like aviation checklists do not tell the pilots how to fly a plane, our editing checklists do not teach someone how to edit a document; they help experienced editors keep track of details for particular types of documents.
How does using checklists help us to be more productive? Inherent in putting together a good checklist is a process of creating, testing, and revising that ensures that the most efficient series of steps is presented for all of the editors to follow. When so much of the information we need is in one place—how to use systems, what style and formatting to use, items to be checked—we don’t need to spend a lot of time looking up style questions or wondering how to get into a system or even where to start. We look down at the checklist and we get to work.
How does using checklists improve our quality? From the standpoint of a team, checklists show the editors the non-negotiable items they must check and fix. Checklists also ensure that all of the editors approach the task in the same way, so that there is less variability between the work of different editors. Because editors track their progress through a task on the checklist, it’s easy to pick up the task again after an interruption and not miss anything. This allows a level of consistency that’s hard to get otherwise.
But checklists are not just for editors. Writers and reviewers can also use checklists to manage their writing and reviewing tasks. Anyone can create and use a checklist for a task that requires attention to a multitude of details, is completed on a regular basis, and requires that steps be performed in a set order. Though they require some upfront research and testing, once you have a good checklist, you won’t know how you ever worked without one.
Schrank K. Using Editing Checklists for More Efficient Editing. AMWA Journal. 2013;28:164-166.
Gawande A. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company, 2010.