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Checklists: Good enough for nukes

Lately, I have been interested in the early nuclear program in America, the Manhattan project and the Cold War.  I think, buried in History, are many lessons for helping with IT challenges.  We like to think that our complex projects are unusual when, in fact, many have been dealt with for decades.

My most recent epiphany came while reading about nuclear ICBM launch facilities.  For their day, these were as high tech as you got.  Specifically, I studied the maintenance and upkeep of the silos.  Everything that happened in a silo launch facility revolved around a Checklist.    From the smallest procedure to the most complex service action, there was a checklist.  Taken to a reasonable level, I believe that checklists can solve many problems for the modern IT department.

Problem Resolution is greatly enhanced by having good supporting information.  The first place to start the checklist process is with the Help Desk.  The checklist does two things for the Help Desk agent.  It gathers background about the problem being reported.  This is critical information for the next support level to quickly understand the issue.  It also helps the agent understand who should get the problem next.  In the absence of a checklist, the problem is transferred with insufficient information and to possibly the wrong fix agent.  This extends the time to resolution and gives the end-user a very negative impression of the process.

As a checklist evolves, resolution paths will often be added.  This will naturally occur as busy senior engineers look for ways to avoid getting support cases.  The engineer has a convenient document in which to include these notes.  This allows the IT department to push down easy resolution tasks to the lowest level possible.  This also provides a quick fix for the end-user.  The task could be to restart a service or reboot a server or clear a specific cache.  The checklist process is now becoming a knowledge base that is automatically indexed.

The most valuable characteristic of a checklist is ensuring that nothing is missed.  A maintenance checklist makes sure that the engineer doesn’t forget to save a configuration.  It will prompt for tests to ensure that firewall rules are still valid.  It will document the idiosyncrasies of servers and software that we all know exist.  A checklist seeks to prevent sloppy work or costly mistakes.

Very often, organizations set their sights on documentation.  It is decreed that every action, process, and procedure be thoroughly documented.  I have also found that this work tends to be under resourced and languishes on the back burner.  Checklists can bridge the gap between no or little documentation and documentation nirvana.  It is a foothold that can help you recover quickly from problems and provide outstanding customer service.  I know those two things are on everyone’s checklist. 

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