Month: September 2021

Checklists Improve Results, Reduce Errors and Save Lives

Four years ago, in September 2017, spacesuit technician Joseph Schmitt passed away at 101. The Economist magazine reported how, at NASA, Schmitt helped design and fit spacesuits during the years when Alan Shepard made America’s first manned space flight (1961), John Glenn circled the Earth (1962) and Apollo 11 landed a module on the moon (1969). Before retiring in 1983, Schmitt also supported Space Shuttle launches and the first Skylab flight.

Astronauts trusted their lives to the work of people like Mr. Schmitt, and he relied heavily on the use of checklists to focus resources, manage quality and minimize risk. As with any pilot working a pre-flight list and surgeons such as Atul Gawande (who wrote the bestseller The Checklist Manifesto), checklists saved lives. In the case of Schmitt, his list included items such as air-leaks, communication lines and the security of over-gloves, helmets and boots. 

Checklists also support high performance for less life-dependent activities. Consider real estate closings, malt loaf recipes, investing decisions, and the analysis of timber markets. In the end, simple tools such as checklists help us avoid “boiling the ocean” and fuzzy thinking in order to prioritize effort on the task at hand.

Brooks on Books: What are You Reading?

When visiting family or eating with friends (or interviewing job candidates), I often ask “what are you reading?” I find books or other long form writing a better source of conversational kindling than discussing the weather, recent doctor visits or the op-ed pages. A discussion starting with books and authors can lead anywhere. 

For example, my Aunt and I regularly exchange book ideas. A lover of horses and Native American culture, she introduced me to Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mysteries featuring police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. (So far, I’ve read Dance Hall for the Dead and The Ghostway.) This led to discussions about Navajo artists and my Aunt’s earrings, which helped me discover the Native American artist Frances Jones and a lovely bracelet for my wife for our anniversary. This series of links, connected by books, occurred over a ten-year period.

My Mom and Dad belong to book clubs (Mom and her friends drink tea when discussing their books; Dad’s crew drinks wine). Over the years, both sent me books they’ve read and enjoyed. Dad, a Vietnam Veteran, sent me a copy of Beyond Survival by former POW Gerald Coffee. The book recounts how Coffee and his fellow prisoners of war supported each other and communicated with a secret code tapped on walls between cells. (Sometime, after a difficult day, I flip through this book for perspective and appreciation.) The book strengthened an interest in reporting and fiction from Vietnam, including my favorite, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book of linked short stories related to the Vietnam War.

Books connect us. This goes beyond required high school reading and Bible study, both of which offer their own foundational literacy. When someone uses the word “tesseract” or “grok” in a sentence, I feel a flush of joy and follow-up later to ask when they read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Richard Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land. The book-based connections help us share memories (and travel through space and time). 

So, what are you reading? I welcome your comments and recommendations.

This post is dedicated to my Dad. Happy Birthday, Captain!