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Lean Knowledge Management - Book Review

1 May 2022
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"Lean Knowledge Management: How NASA Implemented a Practical KM Program" is a book by Roger Forsgren in 2021. With decades of experience at NASA, Forsgren served as the organization's Director of Training and Knowledge Manager until his retirement.

 

To summarize the Lean method in one sentence, Forsgren's approach focuses NASA's knowledge management efforts on lessons learned, which forms the central theme of this book. He suggests concentrating on critical knowledge, specifically the direct knowledge that supports the success of the organization's main missions (space projects), instead of attempting to encompass all knowledge and related activities.

 

According to Forsgren, emphasizing the world of lessons learned has played a crucial role in driving cultural change at NASA. It represents a significant shift in knowledge sharing and learning, aiming to prevent future failures like those experienced during the Challenger and Columbia missions.

 

The book covers the following topics:

 

1. What is lean knowledge management?

2. Methodology:

  • Lessons learned

  • Dissemination of knowledge

 

3. Implementation:

  • Knowledge management program in the organization

  • Challenges

  • Future directions of development

 

"Lean Knowledge Management: How NASA Implemented a Practical KM Program" comes highly recommended, particularly for individuals involved in lessons learned. The book is written in an accessible and reader-friendly format, avoiding unnecessary length.


What is lean knowledge management?

Introduction: History has taught us that we are not inherently smarter than our ancestors or those who came before them. However, we possess an advantage: the ability to learn from their mistakes and improve our functioning. Knowledge management, particularly lessons learned, enables us to embrace this learning in our professional and personal lives. But what does lean knowledge management entail?

 

1. Knowledge:

It encompasses critical information such as lessons, case studies, advice, know-how, training, and best practices. This knowledge empowers relevant employees to perform their jobs more efficiently and productively.

 

2. Knowledge management:

It involves the gathering, filtering, and sharing of knowledge. This process includes identifying potential pockets of expertise within the organization, filtering and selecting the most valuable knowledge from the vast amount of information available, and determining the most effective means of sharing this knowledge with those who need it.

 

3. Slim:

Lean knowledge management focuses on a specific target audience and prioritizes what contributes most to their success.

 

4. Lean knowledge management:

It revolves around collecting and sharing only the relevant critical knowledge that enables employees to carry out their tasks safely, efficiently, and effectively. Lean knowledge management acknowledges that stakeholders are primarily interested in tools that facilitate their work and leverage academic knowledge without delving deeply into it. (Note: And don't be misled—'lean' doesn't imply a lack of investment. The author reveals at the end of the book that it amounts to "only" $10 million a year.)


Methodology:

 

Lessons learned:

The key to extracting lessons lies in objectively documenting the past.

 

Identification of potential lessons learned:

  • Monitoring engineering changes in projects


  • Examining problems through the quality department

 

Forsgren provides a template for lessons learned and documentation, which includes:

  • Abstract: A concise lesson description, helping readers determine its relevance to their context.

  • Suggested search words: Tags that facilitate the appropriate retrieval of lessons learned.

  • Description of the problem/situation: Covers the who, what, when, and how aspects.

  • (Photo)

  • Conclusions: Explains how the situation/problem was addressed.

 

Employees must recognize the significance of lessons learned as a valuable tool for simplifying their work.


Dissemination of knowledge:

Forsgren offers a diverse and informative range of methods for sharing knowledge, ensuring its accessibility to employees, and encouraging their consumption.

  • Lessons Learned Database: Organized according to the structure proposed in the Lessons Learned chapter. The database should be user-friendly for easy retrieval and utilization.

  • Case studies: Narratively documented accounts of complex situations, often following accidents or failures. They provide readers with an understanding of the situation's intricacy and can serve as discussion material, particularly in tutorials. Proper documentation of case studies requires expertise, and Forsgren considers them a central tool, offering valuable advice on their composition.

  • Storytelling: Involves individuals skilled in recounting their experiences of failure or success brought to designated events/meetings.

  • Learning events: Forums where events are discussed and analyzed in various formats. Organize learning events to glean insights from project teams.

  • Videos: Discussions of events, from one-on-one conversations using simple means to auditorium presentations featuring panels sharing different perspectives.

  • Podcasts: 15-minute episodes discussing successes and failures.

  • Courses: Incorporate lessons learned into the overall course program, integrating skills that help prevent and address issues (covers various topics, including biases, extensively discussed).


  • Website: Establish a website hosting all the content above.

  • Newsletter: Distribute newsletters featuring new learning events and products (with a subscriber base of 60,000 worldwide).

  • Social Media: Share content on multiple social networks, fostering an open culture at NASA.

  • Sharing meetings with other organizations: Exchange knowledge and learn from each other. Gain new ideas and insights from other participants' questions, reflecting on one's practices.

  • Measurement: Track metrics such as website traffic, the volume of visits, downloads, etc., to assess the reach and impact of the disseminated knowledge.


Implementation:

 

Knowledge management program in the organization:

Stages of establishing the program:

 

1. Defining the boundaries:

Clearly define the program's responsibilities, including the scope of business-organizational content, types of activities, and infrastructure considerations. Note that infrastructure recommendations do not pertain to computing or library aspects.

 

2. Defining and engaging stakeholders:

Identify stakeholders based on the established boundaries, focusing on those benefitting from the knowledge management program. Engage stakeholders through dialogue, addressing topics such as:

  • Return on investment in terms of contributing to mission success.

  • Costs associated with the lack of knowledge management, including repeated errors.

  • Time and labor savings resulting from process improvements.

  • Support for fostering a desired culture of learning, improvement, employee engagement, and sharing successes.

 

3. Establishing an Administration:

Form a team with designated management roles and responsibilities, following generally accepted management principles. Emphasize the delivery of excellent internal customer service. NASA's team structure includes a knowledge manager, a headquarters team responsible for infrastructure, and several groups focused on training, lessons learned management and dissemination, project management, and customer service. Additionally, each NASA center has a knowledge leader (with ten centers in total), ensuring synchronized activities aligned with the specific needs of each center. The team structure encompasses 15 positions at the center level, along with knowledge leaders.

 

4. Establishing infrastructure:

Develop the necessary infrastructure, such as a website and customer service capabilities.

 

5. Writing a project plan:

Prepare a comprehensive project plan outlining the program's essence, budget, processes, and measurement criteria.

 

Running the program in practice:

Implement and execute the knowledge management program according to the established plan, actively managing and leveraging knowledge within the organization.


Challenges and Coping Strategies:

Implementing a knowledge management program is not without its challenges. Here are some common challenges and strategies to address them:

 

  1. Lack of progress in the knowledge management program:

    Management support is crucial for the program's success. Properly position knowledge management within the organization by assigning responsibility to a management member who can significantly influence the program's effectiveness. For instance, in the case of NASA, the chief engineer's office was the appropriate location.

  2. Lack of use of the knowledge management system:

    Driving user engagement requires more than just providing access to the system. Externalize and demonstrate the value of the shared knowledge to encourage users to participate and use the available resources actively.

  3. Customer Audit: Effective criticism can be valuable. Learn to seek and receive feedback, differentiate constructive criticism from noise, and establish mechanisms to implement input and improve responses.

  4. Audit of (potential) partners:

    Listen to partners who can assist in setting up and operating solutions. Gather success stories and measurement data to engage and recruit them, reducing ineffective criticism. Embrace and apply constructive criticism.

  5. Personal sensitivity:

    Knowledge management can touch on personal sensitivities within an organization. Approach the subject with care to avoid creating an accusatory atmosphere.

  6. Conspiracy theories:

    People tend to generate complex interpretations. Try to stick to simpler explanations, which are often the most accurate.

  7. Cognitive biases:

    Recognize that everyone has cognitive biases that can impact decision-making. Engage in workshops or activities to understand and address these biases. Be aware of typical biases and actively look for them.

  8. Entertaining the program:

    Avoid getting distracted by too many solutions that may derail the overall plan. Stay focused on what is truly important.

  9. Fear of failures:

    Fear of failure can hinder progress. Foster a culture that encourages learning from failures and views them as opportunities for growth. Foster transparency and create a positive learning environment.

  10. Agendas:

    Beware of individuals skewing facts to advance personal agendas. Emphasize objective knowledge management practices.

  11. Partisan knowledge management:

    Acknowledge and support independent knowledge management activities within the field. Help individuals recognize the benefits of sharing knowledge within the broader knowledge management framework.

  12. Limited knowledge management:

    Some groups may restrict knowledge sharing to mitigate risks, such as legal issues or inaccuracies. Strive to strike a balance allowing knowledge sharing while managing potential risks.

  13. Vanity:

    Beware of the trap of vanity, assuming that everything is clear and does not require explanation or explaining only to highly knowledgeable individuals. This can lead to a lack of in-depth production. Be aware of this tendency and strive for objectivity, putting yourself in the user's shoes as much as possible.

 

Caution:

Remember that knowledge management should not aim to predict the future. Lessons learned may not always be successful, especially in cases of high complexity or when there is little to learn from the situation being investigated.


Future Directions of Development:

After achieving success in knowledge management, it is important to continue progressing. Here are potential directions for further development:

 

  1. Knowledge Manager in a leadership role - CKO: Chief Knowledge Officer:

    Elevating the position of the Knowledge Manager to a management-level role can strengthen the influence of knowledge management within the organization.

  2. Expanding lessons learned beyond the organization:

    Look for opportunities to search for knowledge in other organizations and on a global scale. This broader perspective can contribute to advancing organizational management and addressing challenges more effectively.

  3. Broadening the scope of knowledge management activities:

    Consider expanding the focus of knowledge management to include the retention of retiring knowledge. This ensures that valuable expertise is preserved and accessible even after employees leave the organization.

  4. Establishing a database of experts:

    Create a centralized repository of experts within the organization. This database can be a valuable resource for accessing specialized knowledge and promoting collaboration.

  5. Extending knowledge management activities to support onboarding:

    Utilize knowledge management practices to facilitate the onboarding process for new employees. By providing them access to relevant knowledge and expertise, their integration into the organization can be more efficient and productive.

 

It is important to acknowledge that recognition from others may not always match the significant contributions made through knowledge management. However, knowing that the organization has improved due to these efforts can bring a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.


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