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Tips for managing a Lessons Learning Process

1 April 2013
Anat Bielsky
notebook and penciles

Lesson Learning processes are performed as part of investigating projects and processes that enable the organization to learn from past events and thus prevent making these mistakes in the future. The lesson learning process enfolds many challenges:

  1. Lack of time: in order to perform an in depth lesson learning process from an event it is mandatory to conduct an in-depth discussion with as many participants and perceptions as possible. This requires many time resources, especially on behalf of the participants.

  2. Psychological & cultural barriers: the lesson learning process s sometimes referred to in professional jargon an 'investigation'. There are obvious worries and psychological reluctance on behalf of the organization workers from the term, which complicates dealing with this process. Furthermore, people involved in a project have a tendency to blame others while defending themselves. Therefore, using lesson learning processes is relevant only in a suitable organizational culture i.e. an environment in which the workers express willingness to learn and management is prepared to search for solutions rather than a culprit and the organization in general is open to criticism and changes.

  3. Lessons that cannot lead to tasks: the purpose of debriefing is learning for future events, whether if learning for an immediate change (tasks) or learning through improved future conduct (lessons).


How can these challenges be overcome?

It is recommended that the process leader will not be someone related to the project and that he/she will be someone with relevant experience that can follow performances but will not be accounted for his/her actions in the failed project. Furthermore, managing the process requires skills; in order to create implementable quality lessons the process manager must be well versed in lessons learning methodologies and their operation. In many cases, the process managers find differentiating between the process's different stages. This inhibits the lesson learning and affects its quality.


Managing lesson learning meetings

  1. Professional talk: An organizational manager directing the lesson learning will focus the meetings around the professional subject and will not allow the discussion to divert to specific accusations by (among other methods) not mentioning names when performing the lessons learning process and emphasizing that we are examining cases, not people.

  2. Explaining the process: the process manager can demonstrate the implementation of learning lessons in known content worlds unrelated to the work field: sports, aviation etc. Furthermore, give examples of lesson learning processes that provided workers with an actual edge, such as changing procedures, work processes etc.

  3. Short focused process: the tendency to delve into each detail can exhaust the participants and generate reluctance to attend the following meetings. Therefore, the process should be performed (if possible) in one short meeting.

  4. Sharing and transparency: throughout the execution of the process, create a dialogue between the meeting director and the participants. This purpose of this dialogue is to address arising oppositions while allowing partners to express their concerns. The focus of this stage is on 'showing all your cards' and having these concerns answered by an authorized manager.

  5. Unity: in the lessons learning process everyone is equal; do not let rank, experience or personality take over the conversation or divert it from collective learning.

  6. Focused aspects: An organizational manager directing the process, focusing the aspects (organizational/engineering/marketing/procedural) the process will deal with. The manager should prevent any diversion from this designated focus.

  7. Positive Ending: discussing the factors that caused the project's malfunction can cause a decline in the participants' morale and motivation. Therefore, it is important to end the meeting on a positive note and discuss the positive and successful sides of the project in order to remind everyone that things aren't all bad-some are actually very good.


Tips for leading a lessons learning process:

  1. A timeline: understanding the order in which the story of the project (and the events which comprise it) unfolded.

  2. Categories: Hand all participants blank cards. Then request each participant to write down the subjects that in his/her opinion are related to the project. Then place these cards on the board organized according to subjects: Critical, Technical, Procedural, Organizational etc.

Defining tasks-the subjects identified should be solved and made efficient via tasks defined for each subject. When there is a list of tasks to be performed, appoint someone to make sure the task is indeed performed correctly.

  1. AAR (After Actions Review): this is a methodology popular in the US and Europe. It is based on answering 4 main questions:

    1. What did you expect to happen?

    2. What actually happened?

    3. Why? (look for the cause explaining the gap between your expectations and reality)

    4. What are your recommendations derived from the situation?

The advantage of using this methodology is derived from its simplicity. It is easy to operate, the questions are clear and the process is promoting; it can be implemented on events, processes and projects-both large and small.  The "Why" question (question 3) can be repeated several times, thus achieving a thorough understanding of the core elements. In any case, it is recommended to use a structured method that included forms and templates of the investigation process, use of questions focused on 'the big picture' and emphasizing "what was done" rather than "who did it". 

  1. Choose one organized method that will assure uniformity of the organization's lessons learning process as well as ensure uniformity in creating quality lessons. After completing the process it is recommended to distribute its products since it creates visibility and enables transverse sharing of the benefits produced in this process. The produced quality lessons that can be used throughout the organization serve as motivation to join the process.


In conclusion, a successful lessons learning process needs an orderly methodology, a skilled performer of the process as well as management of the cultural aspects of the process.

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