Checklist to Mars: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Deploy

Perseverance now has radar lock on the ground.

We have confirmation that the lander vision system has produced a valid solution.

Source: Watch NASA’s Perseverance Rover Land on Mars!

I’ve experienced some tense and overwhelming moments as a systems engineer going through a deploy checklist, and I cried with joy and relief when I heard these words from Dr. Swati Mohan, lead engineer for guidance, navigation and controls operations. What a moment for the team.

Watch the gripping two minutes before touchdown starting at this timestamp (1:38:26):

See also The Checklist Manifesto, because checklists rock. Don’t deploy without one.

The Checklist Manifesto

  • Progress in human understanding has become increasingly complex and overwhelming.
  • Checklists help prevent serious but easily avoidable mistakes.
  • Checklists should be as short as possible, include all essential steps and leave no room for misunderstandings.
  • Today’s complex tasks can no longer be left to a lone hero’s expertise; we need teams.
  • Team communication is vital in complex situations and can be greatly enhanced by a checklist.
  • Medical checklists have already saved many lives.
  • Checklists can be effective in diverse settings.

Much of  The Checklist Manifesto is flow curation describing how various industries (medicine, construction, food service, aviation, …) use checklists. A shared practice is the check listing of communication tasks. The construction industry calls this communication check listing a submittal schedule. Submittal schedules document flow between teams.

Another shared practice is using checklists to distribute power. “Cleared for takeoff” culture gives anyone on any of the teams that are constantly communicating per the submittal schedule the power to say, whoah. Further, the checklists make the minimum necessary steps explicit while giving room to adapt. Make checklists that are a cognitive net, not a wagging finger.

Checklists document and shape flow. They inspire flow in emergencies and sustain it through the quotidian. The virtues that come with the lightweight discipline of checklists are many and emergent. They relieve anxiety, make process transparent, distribute power, and help teams flow during stress.

Checklist cool tricks

Checklists…

  • distribute power.
  • push power of decision making to the periphery.
  • provide a cognitive net.
  • make the minimum necessary steps explicit.
  • make sure simple steps are not missed.
  • make sure people talk.
  • capture and shape real flow.
  • inspire flow in emergencies and sustain it through the quotidian.
  • capture flow between teams.
  • encourage a shared culture around flow.
  • accessibly capture institutional memory in the context of flow.

Attributes of a good checklist

What makes a good checklist? Checklists shouldn’t be about just checking boxes. Instead of being a chore, checklists should fit and assist real flow. The Checklist Manifesto offers these suggestions.

Ideally, checklists…

  • are not lengthy.
  • have clear, concise objectives.
  • define a clear pause point at which the checklist is supposed to be used.
  • have fewer than ten items per pause point.
  • fit the flow of the work.
  • continually update as living documents.

See this checklist for checklists and this example checklist for more.

Highlights

  • Just ticking boxes is not the ultimate goal here. Embracing a culture of teamwork and discipline is.
  • Make the minimum necessary steps explicit
  • Provide a cognitive net
  • Establish a higher standard of baseline performance
  • “forcing functions”: relatively straightforward solutions that force the necessary behavior—solutions like checklists.
  • We are besieged by simple problems.
  • Submittal schedule – checklist of communication tasks
  • Submittal schedules make people talk
  • We can build complex things because of tracking and communication
  • A checklist to make sure simple steps are not missed. A checklist to make sure people talk.
  • Push power of decision making to the periphery. Give people room to adapt. Make sure they talk and take responsibility.
  • In a complex situation, don’t issue instructions, make sure people talk.
  • Following the recipe is essential to making food of consistent quality over time.
  • behavior-change delivery vehicle
  • bring gifts rather than wag fingers
  • simple, cheap, effective, and transmissible
  • Cleared for takeoff culture.
  • Pre-launch team briefing. Team huddle.
  • Pause points.
  • Simple interventions. Leverage.
  • Checklists distribute power.
  • An inherent tension exists between brevity and effectiveness.
  • Part of every expert’s job should be finding a way to ensure that the group lets nothing fall between the cracks. Systems require experts tending flow to be healthy.
  • Getting people to offer their names and concerns during the pre-launch briefing makes them more likely to speak up later. “Activation phenomenon. Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and responsibility and their willingness to speak up.”
  • “That’s not my problem” is possibly the worst thing people can think
  • You must define a clear pause point at which the checklist is supposed to be used
  • You must decide whether you want a DO-CONFIRM checklist or a READ-DO checklist.
  • The checklist cannot be lengthy.
  • Ideally, the person driving isn’t the person working though the checklist. Copilots are good. The driver is less distracted and power is distributed.
  • “Even the most expert among us can gain from searching out the patterns of mistakes and failures and putting a few checks in place.”

Selected quotes

Checklists supply a set of checks to ensure the stupid but critical stuff is not overlooked, and they supply another set of checks to ensure people talk and coordinate and accept responsibility while nonetheless being left the power to manage the nuances and unpredictabilities the best they know how.

Continue reading “The Checklist Manifesto”