Meet Matthew Eppelsheimer

Matthew EppelsheimerMatthew co-founded Rocket Lift, a WordPress development company based here in Portland. His interests span art and beauty, local food, journalism, and the open source cultural revolution. He’s speaking this year about checklists. They’ve tamed complexity in many industries and they can help your web work, too.

We caught up with Matt to ask a few questions about checklists. Read on for his epic answers!

How’d you get interested in checklists (a pretty specific topic)?
I happened to catch an interview on the radio with Atul Gawande, the author of “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right”, where he was recounting stories about hospitals bringing rates of infection in some surgical procedures from 10% and higher down to nearly zero, simply by utilizing checklists in surgery. These highly educated doctors and nurses had been trained in all the steps necessary to prevent infection, and yet checklists helped them in dramatic, statistically significant ways. It almost made me angry to learn that deaths and complications from surgery were so easily addressed, by simply enforcing procedure.

But I was also frustrated with our inability at Rocket Lift to stop launching “finished” sites without discovering errors in the weeks that followed, and some of our clients were angry with us too. It was like you could bet good money that we would get something wrong. I was aware of this, and we were looking for issues before launch, but they still crept in. So, I picked up The Checklist Manifesto because I hoped there might be some lessons for us. Maybe our bugs were similar in some way to infections introduced in surgery, and checklists could help us, too.

I really got interested when, just a few pages into the book, Gawande described exactly the conditions of extreme complexity that we work with every day. It turns out that the same issues that give rise to problems in medicine also exist in web development — just as they do in many other fields, like in air travel and in building construction. When every project is different, with more factors and changing conditions than you can count, and you have a bunch of people with different skill sets all working together, then unforeseeable problems will arise, someone might make a bad assumptions, and the team will likely miss a small detail that turns out to be important. That describes “complexity”, and it applies to web design just as well as it applies to surgery. Of course what we do is hard!

Checklists have become the fundamental building block of how Rocket Lift works. I never would have guessed it, but they not only help us to avoid errors, they also help us to apply our learning at a faster pace. We’ve been measuring errors and have seen them drop to near zero, but what’s most interesting is that we don’t repeat mistakes now. Period. When we introduce a problem into a live website, we identify what to do to avoid it in the future, and incorporate the lesson into our checklists. We’re able to focus now on doing even better work, instead of trying and failing to avoid screw ups.

So, checklists excite me because of their amazing superpower to tame the complexity of our work, with dramatic, measurable results. They’ve enabled us to pursue excellence instead of merely avoiding failure (in vain). It’s almost poetic for something so simple to make so many complex problems manageable.

Can you detail the history of checklists a bit? How are they used in other industries?
The idea of a pre-flight checklist has made it into our popular lexicon, but they didn’t always exist. Pilots invented the pre-flight checklist in the 1940s when flying became complicated enough that highly trained expert pilots were dying in accidents. Often this was due to operator error because they neglected something routine.

It’s interesting to me how much this took ego out of the picture. Imagine having tens of thousands of hours of flight time, and all of that training, yet still methodically reviewing simple steps with your co-pilot before take-off. Has the flight plan been filed? Is the trim set? Are the flaps unlocked? Are the oil gauges in the green? … it’s humbling. And yet this is what keeps air travel safer than driving your car. Pilots had the sense to accept that they needed memory aids to get the mundane things right and keep the plane in the air.

Professionals in other industries, like building construction, litigation, investment, and project management have adapted checklists to their needs. One notable idea from the construction industry is including checklist steps to make sure the qualified experts are in communication when they need to be. This is important. Sometimes, we need checklists to remind us of the many little details. Other times, when complex situations arise that a checklist couldn’t have planned for, improvisation is called for. In those cases it’s often important that solutions be vetted by the whole team. For example, if a structural engineer makes a change to a skyscraper during construction to account for something unforeseen, they may need to check in with inspectors, other engineers, and project managers to make sure the solution doesn’t cause additional issues.

The medical field has adopted checklists in a phenomenal way just in the last decade, and thousands — if not millions — of lives have already been saved as a result. No doubt Gawande’s book, published in 2010, has a lot of people thinking more directly about how important checklists can be, and the art of using them to augment a team’s effectiveness.

Applications of checklists in software certainly aren’t new. Software engineers and project managers have been using them for decades to standardize code and prevent errors. In the web design and development world this is becoming more relevant as web programming becomes more sophisticated, and we develop professional specializations around publishing with content strategy and editorial content management.

What’s the composition of a good checklist?
Checklists should have two primary roles: First, to make sure the important steps in procedures are followed. Second, to make sure the knowledgeable brains on the team are in communication. I’ll go into more depth on the checklists Rocket Lift uses in my talk, but here’s one example.

Our checklists for deploying website updates begin with “Talk through steps on this checklist”. This ensures that our standard list has been properly adapted to whatever specific steps we’re taking that day, and to give all team members an opportunity to contribute their perspectives on any risks and how to mitigate them. I’m always amazed at what comes up on the fly in those discussions. We’ve brought together a smart and capable team that already knows what needs to be done. The checklist is mostly concerned with facilitating the team’s communication.

What are your favorite checklist tools?
We use Asana for project management, and it is essentially a glorified list maker, so it lends itself well to making custom checklists.

We like our checklists to be tightly integrated into the work we’re doing, to minimize friction by presenting information exactly when and where we need it. There aren’t any good tools I’m aware of for adding checklists within the WordPress admin itself — yet. I think there’s room for an editorial workflow checklist plugin that might interrupt publishing a post with a checklist and a “confirm publish” button. The checklist could have custom items depending on your needs, items like “add SEO meta tags”, “consider whether your tone is angry and needs revision”, “categorize and tag appropriately”, “preview post”, “customize post slug”, and so on.

And, whenever possible we like to automate steps out of the checklists — for example, using provisioning and build script tools, unit test suites, and WP-CLI… basically, we look for software tools that automatically run through checklists steps for us, and throw up flags if anything needs attention.

What are some ways you’ve adopted checklists at Rocket Lift?
We have one master checklist for starting new projects, which we use for new client intake and setup. It doubles as a project wrap up checklist. We also have a checklist for bringing new team members on board. We have weekly administration checklists and a team meeting agenda — a kind of checklist — that help the company run smoothly.

Then we have more situation-specific technical checklists, like browsers to test against and deployment procedures, which we adapt for specific projects and situations.

We continue to add and update checklists as we grow, to standardize our processes and incorporate our lessons learned. I’m looking forward to giving more examples in the talk, and also having an interactive discussion of the ways audience members can adapt checklists for situations we haven’t thought of yet.

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