Commerical Airliners and Checklists

Originally posted 11-16-2010:
While visiting our Bellevue office a couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to find some time to tour the Boeing plant at Everett.  It's quite an amazing 90 minute tour that gives guests a chance to view the 747, 777, and 787 lines. From a balcony, you can see planes in different stages of assembly on lines that run 24/7. Looking around the monstrosity of a building, there are cranes and large machinery in place to move the large assemblies into their final place on what will become a commercial airliner. The building even has a tunnel system under the building to allow moving people and parts around.  You quickly realize that not only are these airliners an engineering marvel, but the infrastructure put in place to make it possible is awe-inspiring as well. 

A funny thought struck me as I stood, wide-eyed, taking it all in: "How many checklists does it take to manufacture an airliner?"

If you have read The Checklist Manifesto, you will understand what I mean.  In the book, Atul Gawande explores the use of checklist to help organize extremely complex real world issues like building a skyscraper or preparing an airplane for take off, and then presents a case for using checklists in healthcare. Just looking on the plant floor, the complexity of building an airplane successfully looks like a complex undertaking.  I can only imagine how many engineers were involved in the design, skilled workers involved in the assembly, and all the people needed for the logistics of bringing parts from all over the world to make it happen.  I think about all the handoffs in the process, and yet somehow in a few weeks time another airliner is rolled out of the plant for it's first successful test flight. 

Here's what really amazes me: With all of that complexity involved, those planes are pretty safe to fly in.  If those planes can be constructed in a way that is safe for passengers, why can't we get a complex system like healthcare to be safer for patients?  I realize I have written about how using comparisons to aviation has it flaws, but it represents a success story in the world of safety.  I looked at the parts and workers out on the floor, and I started thinking about patient data, equipment, processes, and healthcare workers all functioning in a system where the patient gets to their destination of being home in good health - no delays, lost items, or turbulence. I think we can get there with some standardization, good practices, discipline...and maybe a few well thought out checklists.