Checklists Can Make or Break a Project

Every day we make countless decisions both at work and at home. At work, did we include everything in our calculations, does our design meet the required codes, have we met the requirements of the customer? At home, are we keeping up with the filter changes and other maintenance, how does the landscaping look, do we have all the ingredients for dinner? Checklists are one way we manage the many items we need to do and consider every day both at home and at work. You may think, “I don’t need a checklist. I’ve got it all in my head.” But, have you ever gotten distracted, and forgotten a key ingredient at the store?  Have you ever left a mark or a size off your drawing?


Checklist Day began due to somber circumstances. October 30th marks the anniversary of a deadly airplane crash that changed aviation forever. Boeing had developed the B-17 Flying Fortress, the most sophisticated airplane of its time, five years in development. During the demonstration at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the airplane roared down the runway, achieved lift, began climbing above the ground, stalled, banked and crashed. When Boeing investigated, the airplane was found to have been in perfect condition, with no mechanical failures. However, one small step had been overlooked by the flight crew and caused the plane to nosedive into the ground right after takeoff.


Checklists help each of us avoid tragedies – large and small – every day. Missing one small step, releasing the flight control gust locks, caused the plane to crash. The test pilots were some of the best in the world, but there were too many things to remember.  As a result of this crash and Boeing’s investigation, the Checklist was introduced as a permanent and mandatory tool to be used by every Boeing pilot before every flight.  Today, on every flight you take, the crew goes through a mandatory checklist before takeoff, as well as before landing. Checklists are also used during the manufacture and design of each plane, for maintenance checks, and by the flight attendants during the flight.


Checklists are used in many other industries as well. The surgical community has implemented many checklists. Before you go under anesthesia, before they cut, and before you leave the operating room, the medical team runs through a checklist. If your surgeon does not use checklists, you might want to get a second opinion. The World Health Organization promotes that complication rates were reduced by 35% and death rates by 47% after the implementation of the checklist system.


The organizations using the checklists are made up of well-trained professionals with proper tools to do their jobs. The Boeing test pilots were some of the most experienced well-trained pilots of their day. The checklist does not tell them how to fly the plane or do the operation, rather it is a tool to make experts better. Everything in our world continues to advance and become more technical. As with most industries, building system design has become more sophisticated and complex over time. Just like pilots and surgeons, consulting engineers should use checklists at key points of the design process to make sure we are not forgetting items that might cause complications down the line.


Checklists help us manage the many details associated with a building system design project. Obviously, we cannot put every decision or detail associated with our projects on a giant checklist or it would be too cumbersome to use. The design of the checklists matters a much as having one. Like pilots and surgeons, there are critical points to our project designs. We are not flying a plane, but if we don’t make sure we are meeting the owner’s requirements at the beginning of the project, it won’t get off the ground. At the project proposal stage, the design development stage, and the construction drawings stage, different checklists highlight different items.


The design development stage is particularly crucial because decisions made at that point are difficult to change later in the project. The mechanical team selects the HVAC system and coordinates required above ceiling space, mechanical room areas, duct chases. All of these items must be coordinated with the architect, electrical and structural engineers. The architect is providing floor plans and building occupancy numbers, which factor into equipment sizes and ventilation rates. All teams must work together to cover all of the important items on the DD checklist so the project can proceed smoothly into the construction documents phase.


Checklists are an excellent tool for engineers to make their projects better for their clients. Combing through the project documents with the checklist helps ensure the complete information for the design made it onto the drawing, which reduces confusion during construction. Using the checklist saves future time and money by reducing requests for information. The owner, the design team, and the contractor benefit from a project with complete documentation. Projects that follow the checklists are better projects for everyone.