Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Value of Checklists

For many years, I have included checklists on my Top 10 list of test tools (I also include "your brain"). Some people think this is ridiculous and inappropriate, but I have my reasons. I'm also not the only one who values checklists.

Atul Gawande makes a compelling case for checklists, especially in critical life-or-death situations in his book "The Checklist Manifesto." In reviewing the book on, Malcom Gladwell writes, "Gawande begins by making a distinction between errors of ignorance (mistakes we make because we don't know enough), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes we made because we don’t make proper use of what we know). Failure in the modern world, he writes, is really about the second of these errors, and he walks us through a series of examples from medicine showing how the routine tasks of surgeons have now become so incredibly complicated that mistakes of one kind or another are virtually inevitable: it's just too easy for an otherwise competent doctor to miss a step, or forget to ask a key question or, in the stress and pressure of the moment, to fail to plan properly for every eventuality."

Gladwell also makes another good point, "Experts need checklists--literally--written guides that walk them through the key steps in any complex procedure. In the last section of the book, Gawande shows how his research team has taken this idea, developed a safe surgery checklist, and applied it around the world, with staggering success."

In testing, we face similar challenges in testing all types of applications - from basic web sites to safety-critical systems. It is very easy to miss a critical detail in many of the things we do - from setting up a test environment to performing and evaluating a test.

I have a tried and true set of checklists that also help me to think of good tests to document and perform. It is important to note that a checklist leads to tests, but are not the same as test cases or the tests they represent.

I have been in some organizations where just a simple set of checklists would transform their test effectiveness from zero to over 80%! I even offer them my checklists, but there has to be the motivation (and humility) to use them correctly.

Humility? Yes, that's right. We miss things because we get too sure of ourselves and think we don't need something as lowly, simple and repetitive as a checklist.

Checklists cost little to produce, but have high-yield in value. By preventing just one production software defect, you save thousands of dollars in rework.

And...your checklists can grow as you learn new things to include. (This is especially true for my travel checklist!) So they are a great vehicle for process improvement.

Checklists can be great drivers for reviews as well. However, many people also skip the reviews. This is also unfortunate because reviews have been proven to be more effective than dynamic testing. Even lightweight peer reviews are very effective as pointed out in the e-book from Smartbear, Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Reviews.

Now, there is a downside to checklists. That is, the tendency just to "check the box" without actually performing the action. So, from the QA perspective, I always spot check to get some sense of whether or not this is happening.

Just as my way of saying "thanks" for reading this, here is a link to one of my most popular checklists for common error conditions in software.

I would love to hear your comments about your experiences with checklists.

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