Top 5 Reasons Recovery Checklists Get a Failing Grade

I recently finished The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon. The book deals with the importance of checklists in highly complex environments (airlines, hospitals, etc.) and his mission to minimize the risk of failure and errors, and to ensure the safety of those involved. I thought the book would educate me on building better checklists that our clients could use in their plans.

In the world of BCM, our life is about developing checklists for the Crisis Management, Business Recovery, and Disaster Recovery Teams of our organizations. But, in all honesty, do our team members read the checklists, understand them, or even know they exist? Our average attention span is now eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish.

I looked back at my past checklists; some were good and some were awful. They were too long, not appropriate or had tasks thrown in for filler. The best were short, concise, and action oriented. The days of writing long, voluminous checklists so that anyone could pick it up and go are no longer relevant.

So, what makes up a “bad checklist” according to Dr. Gawande:

  • Vague
  • Too long
  • Hard to use
  • Impractical
  • They turn people’s brains off rather than on

But in comparison, what makes up a “good checklist”

  • Written for the task at hand (Do-Confirm or Act)
  • Precise
  • Efficient
  • Doesn’t spell out everything
  • Provides reminders of only the most critical and important steps that even highly experienced professionals could miss

Dr. Gawande notes that in the end, a checklist is only an aid. If it doesn’t aid, it’s not right. But if does, we must be ready to embrace the possibility.

Do your teams refer to their checklists at all? I can’t count the number of real events and recovery exercises I have facilitated where we were lucky if participants brought their plan, let alone referred to their checklists if they did bring them. But the disciplined teams read the checklists, executed each step, and had a higher rate of success and confidence; they still made mistakes but made the process better and better over time.

You cannot create a good checklist without input and use by your teams. But also remember, checklists cannot make anyone follow them. Teams must have the discipline to use them, execute them and make them better.

Read the book. It’s a good read and will make your checklists better.


Michael Herrera is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of MHA. In his role, Michael provides global leadership to the entire set of industry practices and horizontal capabilities within MHA. Under his leadership, MHA has become a leading provider of Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery services to organizations on a global level. He is also the founder of BCMMETRICS, a leading cloud based tool designed to assess business continuity compliance and residual risk. Michael is a well-known and sought after speaker on Business Continuity issues at local and national contingency planner chapter meetings and conferences. Prior to founding MHA, he was a Regional VP for Bank of America, where he was responsible for Business Continuity across the southwest region.

Business continuity consulting for today’s leading companies.

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