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.