Lessons Learned Process

Originally published on January 4, 2017

16th in a series of 50 Knowledge Management Components (Slide 24 in KM 102)

Lessons learned: explaining what an individual or team has learned as a result of their experience, using documents, presentations, discussions, and recordings — including what they tried, what worked, what didn’t work, what to do, what to avoid, problems faced, how problems were solved, what they would do differently, and key insights and nuggets

It’s easier to get people to talk about successes than about failures, but there is often more to be learned from the latter. Designing a process to capture and reuse lessons learned from both can yield great benefits.

Lessons learned can be written down and stored in a repository, presented during a community meeting and recorded for later playback, and discussed in a roundtable on a conference call. A facilitator can collect individual lessons learned from multiple people and compile them in a summary document.

Avoid capturing generic platitudes such as “it’s important to have a good plan” or “involve support groups early.” Instead, look for nuggets such as “use one extra ounce of grease to lubricate the subassembly during routine maintenance to prevent engine failure.”

Provide ways for lessons learned to be presented and discussed during community events. Don’t just publish them in a document or in a database.

Once an initial collection of lessons learned has been published, ensure that it is periodically reviewed and updated. This should be part of the standard process for capturing, publishing, and maintaining lessons learned.

Consider scheduling a separate recurring conference call during which a team or individual is asked to discuss their lessons learned. Record the calls, and write down the best ideas for publication.

Benefits

1. Enabling better and faster decision making: The reuse of knowledge in repositories allows decisions to be based on actual experience and practical lessons learned.

2. Avoiding making the same mistakes twice: If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we will experience them over and over again. Knowledge management allows us to share lessons learned, not only about successes, but also about failures. In order to do so, we must have a culture of trust, openness, and reward for willingness to talk about what we have done wrong. The potential benefits are enormous. If NASA learns why a space shuttle exploded, it can prevent recurrences and save lives. If FEMA learns what went wrong in responding to Hurricane Katrina, it can reduce the losses caused by future disasters. If engineers learn why highways and buildings collapsed during a previous earthquake, they can design new ones to better withstand future earthquakes. If you learn that your last bid was underestimated by 50%, you can make the next one more accurate and thus earn a healthy profit instead of incurring a large loss.

10 Ways to Enable Lessons Learned

1. Nurture a knowledge sharing culture in which failure during innovation is encouraged, as long as the lessons learned are shared so that similar failures are prevented.

2. Set an objective to increase profits by sharing and reusing lessons learned.

3. Implement lessons learned strategies:

  • Motivate: reward sharing and reusing lessons learned.
  • Supply: capture lessons learned.
  • Analyze: select best lessons learned.
  • Codify: categorize and tag selected lessons learned.
  • Disseminate: send out lessons learned in email messages.
  • Demand: provide a query capability for the lessons learned database.
  • Act: reuse lessons learned.

4. Require that lessons learned documents be submitted to a repository for each project. Set a goal for submitting lessons learned. Measure this goal by the number of lessons learned submitted and the number of unique contributors divided by number of employees.

5. Reward the capture and reuse of lessons learned. For example, for every lessons learned document that is applied, both the contributor and the person applying it earn gift certificates.

6. Review collected information to reveal patterns, trends, or tendencies that can be exploited, expanded, or corrected. Knowledge can be harvested in the form of lessons learned.

7. Embed lessons learned in workflow. For example, a project management system prompts project managers to enter lessons learned reports at appropriate times. Or when sales are closed, and sales reps enter requests for commission payments, they are prompted to enter data into a form that captures lessons learned about the deal.

8. Use stories. Lessons learned can be captured and reused with greater impact if they are told as stories, rather than captured as imperatives in text format. Get teams to discuss lessons learned on podcasts. The knowledge will be more effectively shared than if the same information was written down and submitted to a database.

9. Hold con calls featuring conversations about lessons learned. Hold other calls with speakers sharing lessons learned from failure.

10. Share lessons learned in communities. Encourage community members to learn from other members of the community and from invited guest speakers about successes, failures, and case studies.

Methods

Here are three KM methodologies for lessons learned.

  1. After Action Review was developed in the US Army and is now widely used to capture lessons learned, both during and after an activity or project.
  2. Peer Assist is a tool developed at BP-Amoco used to learn from the experiences of others before embarking on an activity or project.
  3. Retrospect is a structured and facilitated knowledge capture meeting at the end of a project, involving as many of the project team as possible. It is a quick and effective way of capturing knowledge before a team disbands. If a member from the next team to undertake a similar business challenge participates in the discussion, a retrospect for one team can serve as a peer assist for the next one.

Examples

  1. NASA
  2. Project Smart
  3. Transport Airplane Accidents
  4. Fast Company
  5. NRC: Japan Earthquake
  6. Department of Energy
  7. US Army
  8. US Department of Transportation
  9. Air University
  10. HP Knowledge Capture and Reuse (KCR) Process (win/loss and close-out lessons learned):

Insights

1. Steve Denning: Knowledge artifacts are one of the key elements of a KM program. These include records of previous projects, emphasizing lessons learned.

2. Dave Snowden in Learning lessons or lessons learnt?

“Lessons learned systems are not about truth — they are about meaning. The way people recall the past differs from the actual events. The more that material is improved, refined, and linked to established practice, the less valuable it is.

There is an underlying assumption here: that narrative material, anecdotes, pictures, fragments of stories is more valuable than structured documents, and closer to the way we naturally share and create knowledge and learning. Four suggested ways forward:

  • Capture material at the right level of abstraction that’s not too difficult.
  • Get people to record things as they do them, and then index the resulting material so the raw material is interpreted by those who created it.
  • Allow people to talk about failure by allowing them to avoid any attribution of blame.
  • Make capture continuous and a part of the job, not a post-job after-action review.

We need to be learning lessons continuously, not documenting lessons learned.”

3. Michael E. D. Koenig in What is KM? Knowledge Management Explained

“The implementation of a lessons learned system is complex both politically and operationally. Many of the questions surrounding such a system are difficult to answer. Who is to decide what constitutes a worthwhile lesson learned? Are employees free to submit to the system un-vetted? Most successful lessons learned implementations have concluded that such a system needs to be monitored and that there needs to be a vetting and approval mechanism before items are mounted as lessons learned.

How long do items stay in the system? Who decides when an item is no longer salient and timely? Most successful lessons learned systems have an active weeding or stratification process. Without a clearly designed process for weeding, the proportion of new and crisp items inevitably declines, the system begins to look stale and usage and utility falls. Deletion, of course, is not necessarily loss and destruction. Using stratification principles, items removed from the foreground can be archived and moved to the background but still made available.

All these questions need to be carefully thought out and resolved, and the mechanisms designed and put in place before a lessons-learned system is launched. Inattention can easily lead to failure and the tarring of subsequent efforts.”

4. SIKM Leaders Community

Resources

1. Proven practices for lessons learned — and lessons learned about proven practices

2. The Society for Effective Lessons Learned Sharing (SELLS) Fact Sheets

3. Lessons Learned Template by Mark Piscopo

4. Tips for Capturing Lessons Learned: 5 Questions to Answer with Your Team by Adele Sommers

5. Facilitating Knowledge Sharing Through Lessons Learned System by Mohammad Nazir Ahmad Sharif, Nor Hidayati Zakaria , Lim Shu Ching, and Low Soh Fung

6. A Different Way to Acquire Lessons Learned in Knowledge Management by Lauren Trees

7. A Model Lessons Learned System — The US Army by Nancy Dixon

8. Lessons learned when stories are told by Shawn Callahan

9. Knowledge Management Lessons Learned: What Works and What Doesn’t Edited by Michael E. D. Koenig and T. Kanti Srikantaiah

10. How to collect and present Lessons Learnt from KM4Dev

11. Nick Milton

12. Chris Collison

  • What’s wrong with Lessons Learned?
  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3
  4. Part 4
  • Getting Lessons Learned Right
  1. Part 1 (LinkedIn version)
  2. Part 2