The Checklist: The best risk mitigation tool in aviation

two men driving plane at daytime

The risks associated with aviation have been continuously evolving over the 120-year history of flying and the way we manage these risks has seen aviation go from the least safe form of transport to the safest. The risk mitigation strategies employed in the aviation industry have triggered technology advancements in various industries, and we can therefore learn a lot about the way we perceive, manage and mitigate risk from understanding how these aviation systems have been developed.  

Aviation safety most probably started in 1908, just four years after the first flight and five months after the first passenger was flown and unfortunately killed- illustrating the desperate need for risk mitigation processes in aviation. Many accidents and fatalities occurred until industry leaders acknowledged that in order to monetize aviation, for it to reach its full potential, and for it to become a mainstream form of travel, robust risk mitigation systems were needed. These risk management systems were quickly recognized as being important to manage risk internationally as well as domestically. 

This realization led to safer planes being built and pilots being more thoroughly trained, however one thing remained unmanaged- human error. Human error was not seriously acknowledged until WWII when civilians were required to become pilots within weeks of recruitment. This is when the checklist became a mainstream risk mitigation concept.    

The use of checklists has most definitely evolved from being a pilot training tool and is now used as an essential safety tool to assist an experienced, well-trained crew. The major function of the modern checklist is to ensure that the crew will properly configure the plane for flight consistently and limit the likelihood and impact of possible risks. NASA human factors researcher Asaf Dagani researched ‘the checklist’ in his 1990 study Human Factors of Flight-Deck Checklists: The Normal ChecklistHe noted that ‘although these segments comprise only 27 per cent of average flight duration, they account for 76.3 per cent of hull-loss accidents.’  As we see in information security and IT risk management, the majority of risks and cyber breaches originate with human errors. 

Dagani listed eight objectives for using checklists:  

  1. aid the pilots recall. 
  1. provide a standard foundation for verifying aircraft configuration that will prevail even in circumstances where the psychological and physical condition of the pilot may be compromised. 
  1. provide convenient sequences for motor movements and eye fixations. 
  1. provide a sequential framework to meet cockpit operational requirements. 
  1. allow mutual supervision. 
  1. enhance a crew’s concept for configuring the plane- keeping all crew members notified.  
  1. dictate the duties of each crew member to facilitate coordination and logical workload allocation. 
  1. Provide effective quality control by external regulators.  

These checklists are applicable to other fields too. In surgical settings checklists have seen a 36 per cent reduction in complications and reduced deaths by half. Despite the positive statistics associated with checklists they are often neglected, misused or incomplete due to attitude, distractions, interruptions, perceptions, expectations and time pressures. Therefore, it is important that a checklist is comprised in the most effective way for the given task.  

The length of a checklist and the level of discipline correlates with the uptake of checklist use. Over the history of aviation, checklists have increased and decreased in length. The longest ever taking six hours to perform. However, safety and simplicity are most definitely associated, and thus modern checklists are growing smaller. If a checklist is too long, they are hard to use making them impractical and thus less attractive. Good checklists – like most good risk management systems – are precise, efficient, to the point, and easy to use in challenging circumstances. However, it is important to note that this does not mean a checklist should fly a plane, instead it provides reminders for skilled individuals of the most important steps.   

Business leaders, senior executives, and managers do not often use checklists, but they could revolutionize your operations by reducing the risks associated with errors and misjudgments. An essential element of a high-functioning crisis management team is checklists.  Perhaps we should also consider an appropriate type of checklist before a crisis too? 

  1. Checklists support effective delegation, allowing employees to confidently complete complex tasks and for leaders to effectively transfer information to an executor.  
  1. Checklists optimize professional judgment. Managers are expected to be a source of knowledge and guidance for their employees. Therefore, they must act with initiative and make quick decisions from often confused messages. Thus, a checklist can help leaders identify patterns more easily and aid innovative ideas.  
  1. Checklists are precursors for automation. Most systems that can be documented in a process are able to be automated and automation allows for company growth. Since many tasks managers tackle are repetitive, checklists can be implemented and completed avoiding errors or software can be programmed to identify and handle these reoccurring issues.  

To create your checklist first identify the operations that might benefit from a checklist. Comprise a list of precise steps so that the person reading is not confused about what needs to be done and how best to mitigate risk. Ensure the instructions are short, simple and not patronizing. A checklist is not a guidebook, and it should be designed to support existing knowledge. Ensure all staff know exactly when the checklist should be used and how it helps them avoid errors in their work, minimize risk and uncertainty, and optimize performance. Finally, make sure you test your checklist and allow it to evolve with time and experience.  

An important lesson to learn from the aviation industry is that follow-up plans, consistent briefings, teamwork procedures and communication can all be achieved with simple checklists and a commitment to minimizing risk and increasing performance. Internationally, the aviation industry has shown that placing emphasis on team intelligence, effective procedures and checklists can ensure teams can operate at their best, reduce costs, and increase consumer trust. 

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