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Establishing a Lessons Learned Program - Book Review

1 March 2016
Dr. Moria Levy
Book Cover

The book "Establishing a Lessons Learned Program" is a handbook authored by the US Army Learning Division (CALL) in 2012. This book offers a comprehensive framework for addressing the subject, encompassing cultural and procedural aspects.


The book covers a wide range of topics, including:

1. Organizational Motivation for a Lessons Learned Program

2. Understanding Key Terminology

3. Rationale – The Why Behind a Lessons Learned Program

4. Organizational Preparation for Implementing a Lessons Learned Plan

5. Collection of Lessons

6. Analysis

7. Sharing of Insights

8. Implementing Change

9. Evaluation

10. Helpful Tips


Within its pages, the book presents real-world examples of lessons learned programs in various organizations such as the US Army, the US Department of Energy, NASA, and others. It also offers specific guidance on data collection, interview techniques, and the process of summarizing lessons learned.


I had the privilege of receiving this book from the Lessons Learned Unit of CALL when I engaged in a stimulating conversation with its commanders. It is constantly enriching to learn, especially from individuals recognized as leaders in this field globally.


Organizational Motivation for a Lessons Learned Program

Understanding Key Terminology

Here are key terms to acquaint yourself with when participating in a lessons-learned program:

1.Lesson: Knowledge or understanding acquired through experience.

2. Best Practice: A positive experience or constructive lesson that can be quantified through changes in behavior.

3.Lesson Learned: Knowledge derived from past experiences that can be applied to future situations.

4.Knowledge: A spectrum of strategies and practices an enterprise employs to identify, create, represent, disseminate, and apply insights and experiences. Knowledge can exist at the individual level or be integrated into organizational processes.

Types of Knowledge:

  • Tacit Knowledge: Personal knowledge grounded in ideas, insights, values, and judgment.

  • Explicit Knowledge: Knowledge formally transferred from one individual to another through systematic means, such as documents, emails, or multimedia. This knowledge can be conveyed in a relatively straightforward manner.

  • Organizational Knowledge: The amalgamation of vital data, information, knowledge, and intelligence that empowers the organization to learn from its experiences, innovate, make decisions, devise solutions, execute tasks, or instigate changes.

It's worth noting that approximately 80% of knowledge within an organization is often considered tacit.

5.Knowledge Management: Organizational initiatives concentrated on enhancing the attainment of organizational objectives, such as performance enhancement, competitive advantage, and continual improvement.

Additional Commentary:

1.numerous other definitions exist, including those for related concepts like comprehension, information, judgment, cognition, and processes. These have not been expounded upon above for the sake of conciseness.

2.The explanations for these terms correspond to their presentation in the book and may not necessarily mirror the terminology used in professional Israeli jargon.


Rationale – The Why Behind a Lessons Learned Program

There are numerous reasons to justify the implementation of a lessons-learned program within an organization, including:

1.Time Savings: A centralized repository for past lessons learned saves time by providing a convenient location to search for and access valuable insights from previous experiences.

2.Success and Error Insights: The program offers valuable information about replicable success stories and preventable errors, enhancing decision-making processes.

3.Network Building: It becomes part of an interconnected network that includes information, experts, or other relevant resources for each subject area.

Most importantly- Error Prevention: Reducing the risk of recurring errors significantly decreases the likelihood of repeated mistakes and fosters continued success.

At the business level, this program allows for:

• Enhanced Project Management: It contributes to improving project management processes.

• Informed Decision-Making: The program aids in making informed decisions and developing new strategies.

• Enhanced Functionary Performance: It plays a role in improving the performance of various personnel within the organization.

• Knowledge Enrichment: Implementing such a program contributes to accumulating and enhancing organizational knowledge.

• Resource and Life Savings: It has the potential to save lives and resources, including money, equipment, and time.


Organizational Preparation for Implementing a Lessons Learned Plan

The organizational preparations for a lessons-learned plan encompass the following:

1.Supportive Organizational Culture: This stands as the most critical requirement. It involves implementing change management among commanders, managers, and leaders to ensure:

a.The Ability to Self-Reflect

b.The Capacity for Self-Critique

Without managers' commitment to this process, the organization may face challenges in its implementation.

2.Strategy Determination for the Lessons Learned Plan:

a.Goal Setting: Establishing clear objectives for the plan.

b.Identification: Identifying the primary areas for improvement that should be the program's focus.

c.Methodology Selection: Deciding on the approach to be used, considering factors such as available resources and organizational constraints.

d.Program Integration: Exploring how the program can seamlessly integrate into the organization's work processes.

After establishing a comprehensive infrastructure for organizational lessons learned, developing a Set of Procedures, Policies, Guidelines, and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) is advisable to facilitate the program's implementation.


Learning Opportunities

Starting Point: The subjects of interest being examined, from which an organization aims to draw lessons, typically revolve around issues that trouble the organization or even give rise to problems. The organization seeks to refine its approach to handling these matters. Each organization will define its unique list of potential opportunities for learning lessons, including:


a.Training Events and Exercises

b.Experiments, Tests, and Trials aligned with the unit's mission

c.Conferences and Planning Meetings that support the unit's mission

d.Events and Missions


Establishing an annual work plan that coordinates the timing and locations for gathering lessons is advisable. This program should also maintain flexibility to address unforeseen events and emergencies, allowing for swift adjustments when necessary.


One of the most significant challenges during the collection phase is selecting the areas of interest that warrant efforts in gathering lessons. These issues may be determined by a combination of factors, including:

a.Direct instructions from higher authorities

b.Issues identified as crucial for improvement, often stemming from feedback received from multiple field units, highlighting recurring problems

c.Issues identified through systematic analysis as essential for advancing leadership and management


Assigning varying levels of importance to these subjects, assessing associated risks, and making informed decisions on where to allocate collection efforts is essential.


The work plan for gathering lessons should be detailed, providing guidelines for coordinators and officials. It should outline questions, methodology, document sources, interview lists, travel plans, and support and computer systems.

Data Collection Techniques:

• Testing and validating hypotheses during debriefing

• A structured top-down approach involving experts who clarify the issue through predefined questions and a suitable list of interviewees

• An open-ended information-gathering process aimed at uncovering insights from the data

• Research-based data collection

• Assigning a dedicated individual responsible for gathering information and accompanying the team

• After-Action Review (AAR): A discussion held after activities, followed by writing a report serving as both a historical document and a source of lessons learned.


The summary report should encompass an introduction, executive summary, detailed chapters, and appendices. The manual outlines various formats accepted by the military and NATO for these chapters, which include descriptions, discussions, and lessons/recommendations.


Tips:

• Training: Provide preliminary and ongoing training to individuals familiar with the chosen methodologies for gathering lessons.

• Timing: Collect data as closely as possible to the occurrence of the events.

• Question Planning: Formulate open-ended questions while avoiding closed (yes/no) and judgmental questions.

• Scope: Limit the number of topics to 6-12.

• Flexibility: Exercise flexibility and be prepared to deviate from the original plan when necessary.

• Objectivity: Maintain objectivity during debriefing and documentation, avoiding judgment.

• Classification: Draft investigative reports at the lowest possible classification level.

• Validation: Share the draft investigative report with the unit for their input; consider leaving it in its raw, unprocessed form without binding recommendations.


Analysis

The analysis stage aims to identify areas of activity with the potential for improvement, building upon the information gathered in the previous step. This stage systematically transforms raw data into recommendations, encompassing:

a. Validation

b. Completions

c. Recommendations

Validation: Ensuring the validity of recommendations from the field involves:

• Scrutinizing the breadth of sources used during data collection.

• Comparing findings with previous investigations and revisiting related recommendations.

• Identifying critical areas for focused analysis.

• Verify and validate with the unit and relevant stakeholders if not already conducted.


Completions: If necessary, the analysis phase may include:

• Further research, including interviews with individuals connected to the activity.

• Consultations with external experts.

• Organizational deliberations regarding the diagnosis and root causes underlying the observed outcomes.

• Statistical analysis of surveys, interviews, or other pertinent data.


Recommendations and Corrective Actions:

• Presenting results in a clear and understandable format.

• Ensuring that recommendations are practical and actionable, specifying the responsible bodies or officials for leading corrective actions.

• Providing supporting documentation such as interview transcripts or other information that led to the recommendations.

• The analysis phase translates initial diagnoses from the collection stage into positive experiences (best practices) and lessons learned.

When conducted accurately, the analysis stage facilitates formulating an action plan and allocating the necessary resources for implementing corrective actions.


Sharing of Insights

The ability to share lessons learned constitutes a vital component of any lessons learned program. The sharing phase encompasses the following:

a. Informing while considering the significance and urgency of the recommendations.

b. Storing the information in a database for future reference.


Informing: The method of notification varies depending on the urgency of the recommendations:

• Immediate (within five days): Communication through messages (e.g., email or other forms of transmission).

• Urgent (within 30 days): Publication of an article.

• Routine (within 90 days): Compilation into a report.


Furthermore, here are examples of potential communication channels, each differing in terms of content nature, scope, and frequency:

• Handbook Guide (specific topic "HOW TO" guide).

• Newsletter.

• Periodical Journal (weekly, monthly, or quarterly).

• Topic-focused Articles.

• Specialized Advertising (focused on a particular topic or activity).

• Diagnostic Reports.


It's crucial to structure documents to facilitate their effective utilization in future projects. Information should be stored in a designated repository or content site, and supportive information systems can be employed to manage the lessons learned process.

When storing information, it's vital to consider its future utility, serving as historical documentation and for retrieval purposes. Decisions regarding inclusion in the database and classification (content and authorization) should align with these needs.


Implementing Change

The most challenging step in any lessons-learned program is establishing a process for promptly addressing issues identified during data analysis. The success of this stage relies on:

a. Having a supportive and engaged managerial figure to lead the process, assume responsibility, and provide sponsorship for its execution, equipped with appropriate authority.

b. Allocating resources and prioritizing tasks for implementation. For instance, in a military context, top priority is given to matters concerning human life and high-level risks. The guideline outlined in the book emphasizes that if these aspects are integrated into the lessons learned program's budgets and resources, they will be part of the program itself.

c. Formulating an action plan for implementation. Challenges:

  • Resolution of many issues necessitates involvement from multiple parties rather than a single department.

  • Several issues require an extended resolution process, particularly those related to materials or equipment.

d. Executing the corrective plan. As previously explained, programs in the US Army fall into one of seven DOTMLPF categories. Rarely will the Lessons Learned Unit assume responsibility.

Evaluation

Validating the lesson falls under the purview of the Lessons Learned Unit. The underlying assumption is that behavior can be integrated and improved upon despite personnel changes within units, as this is an ongoing, people-centered process.

The assessment can be approached from various perspectives:

a. Evaluating the practical application of recommended behaviors.

b. Assessing organizational or unit performance.

c. Scrutinizing the effectiveness of tasks associated with the lessons learned.


Helpful Tips

Here are some tips for implementing an organizational lessons-learned plan:

• Maintain patience, even when dealing with lessons without clear "owners" or those that aren't readily shared or applied. Implementing an organizational lessons-learned plan demands persistence.

• Don't wait until a project is completed to extract lessons. Conduct reviews as early and as frequently as possible.

• Proactively identify and target project management processes that can benefit from lessons learned.

• Pay particular attention to the supply chain as a potential area for cost savings.

• Take initiative and assume responsibility, even when others hesitate.

• Prioritize addressing lessons that hold significant value for the organization.

• Emphasize taking action over mere documentation of lessons; ensure effective communication.

• Systematically plan for lessons learned based on the Mattel lessons learned program.


Summary

The methodology detailed in the book pertains to various lesson creation and learning stages. Simultaneously, one can analyze the progression of knowledge through the following phases:

  1. Area of Interest: This encompasses a general, potentially problematic topic identified as suitable for lessons learned.

  2. Diagnosis: A statement describing something that occurs under specific conditions.

  3. Lesson: A potential solution to a problem grounded in observations.

  4. Recommendation: A suggestion for corrective action that, when implemented, resolves the problem.

  5. Positive Experience: A solution to a problem tested and proven effective.

  6. Lesson Learned: Implementing corrective action resulting in improved performance or observed behavioral changes in the field.

This knowledge development unfolds in the stages outlined above, starting from initial interest (collection), progressing to diagnosis (analysis), transitioning to lessons learned (sharing), moving on to recommendations, and culminating in lessons (decision on the course of change). Positive experiences evolve concurrently with the lessons.


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