The Checklist

It happened in 1935. Boeing had built an aeroplane – Model 299. This was supposed to carry Five times more bombs and fly twice as far as any previous of its kind. The media named it the “Flying Fortress”. Some names gets popularised by their appropriateness.

Anyway, Model 299 (later named B-17) was to be test flown on 30th Oct at Wright Airfield in Dayton, Ohio. The media and the army gathered as courious onlookers to view this impressive behemoth taxi towards its maiden flight. In command was a stalwart Major Hill.

The plane roared, as it roared those days, and made a smooth take off. It gained altitude and then lost it as quickly. Actually it stalled and crashed killing Hill and another crew member.

Later investigations revealed that nothing was actually wrong, mechanically speaking. This aircraft had four turbo-prop engines and hence incremental complexity. While Hill was over the top trying to mix fuel and oil of each engine, attending to landing gears and Flaps, he had forgotten to switch off a new locking mechanism on elevators and rudder. The error proved fatal. Upon knowing this, the media termed it as “too much aeroplane for one man to fly“. Again an appropriate phrase!

Boeing almost went bankrupt. Some quick negotiations saved the day but Boeing knew they did not have much economic room to manoeuvre. Their prime think tanks got together to beat this odd. It’s an ample proof that they did not indulge in the blame game. Neither did they promulgate any “circulars” to crunch the down line. In fact they came out with something so simple, the success of which survives to this day.

They created – The Checklist.

Though this started from aviation, this simplicity has percolated to all areas of Human Activity. It’s in the hospitals, in constructions, in garages etc. Wherever a Human activity needs to go through a series of steps, there will be a Checklist. It’s an antidote against being Check-Mated.

Though the Checklist is not full-proof but it provides any individual precious starting steps. Discretion can take over but that decision would be based on some knowledge derived out of following the check listed steps. Humans are prone to gamble and guesswork. Checklist discounts speculations. It also saves lives.

Boeing had one disaster which led them to make a path-breaking process improvement. How many do we need? There is a house collapse almost every other day somewhere in this country. At this rate, people should shift to “house of cards”. At least, the survival rate would be better. In our own building, there is water seepage on one side of the wall. Our one bed room has one wall which looks like “Crumpled Khadi”. All information to authorities is a waste. I have discovered that a “deaf ear gets more sound”. The “Responsibles” come, they see, they concur and then they “seep” away. It’s the collapse, I think, which calls their true attention.

The only option with us is to move. And that would require capital with a capital “C”. All residents of Mumbai are stuck in a purgatory. In fact, this is a condition in all metropolises. We all celebrate the “GO” spirit but inherently we all know we cannot stop. We are in a carousel which needs no Checklist. Instead of overseeing the process, we are into it. We are all like bogs, filth and dead-woods streaming down the “Great Indian Rivers”.

In Indian context, we would expect, the ill-fated Major Ployer P. Hill to make his own Checklist. In my own surroundings, I see the “doers” behave like Stock Market “Floor Traders”. In Boeing, the experts got together to develop a “Card” to solve complexities. Here, the “Card” is replaced by cacophony. If you have a pain or a problem, you will have to sufficiently prove it. It’s like a patient diagnosing his own problems. The problem exists only when the expert is favourably convinced. For an expert here, a checklist is like “paper work”, too demeaning for his high-brow involvement.

In aviation, the Checklist (also called Handy-Dandy) is King. It is because the person who makes it also flies by it. If it’s wrong, he also pays by it. Remove the “Handy” and ground the “Dandy”. Here the “Dandy” is the pilot. Ask him to fly without his “Handy” and see him fly off the Handle. Quite literally, trust me!

Hence, the person involved in developing or constructing should be made responsible to develop and maintain Checklists. An intangible collapse does not kill, literally. But a tangible collapse does. But we do not learn from either because we do not respect the Checklist and the power which rests into it. So we live and work like a Bohemian and are saved only by a freak. That’s why a collapse is just another “Breaking News”, before you yourself come crashing down like a “House of Bricks”.