Monday, August 05, 2019

Why your organization doesn't learn from its Lessons Learned

Why your organization doesn't learn from its Lessons Learned
Lessons Learned or Lessons Learnt are experiences distilled from a project that should be actively taken into account in future projects.

There are several definitions of the concept. The one used by the NASA is as follows: “A lesson learned is knowledge or understanding gained by experience. The experience may be positive, as in a successful test or mission, or negative, as in a mishap or failure. A lesson must be significant in that it has a real or assumed impact on operations; valid in that is factually and technically correct; and applicable in that it identifies a specific design, process, or decision that reduces or eliminates the potential for failures and mishaps, or reinforces a positive result.

Personally I like the following definition: “Generalizations based on evaluation experiences with projects, programs, or policies that abstract from the specific circumstances to broader situations. Frequently, lessons highlight strengths or weaknesses in preparation, design, and implementation that affect performance, outcome, and impact.

I think most organizations feel that project sponsors, managers, and teams can reduce project costs and duration by learning from past projects, by implementing past successes, and by avoiding past failures.

But at the same time, many organizations have no standards for collecting, analyzing, storing, disseminating, and reusing Lessons Learned. Consequently, they are losing valuable knowledge gained during projects and between projects.

They seem to be able to learn the little lessons, like improving small aspects of projects, but the big lessons seem to be relearned time and time again. Here is why:

> Projects are not making sufficient time for a Lessons Learned session.

> Key people (like the sponsor or main stakeholders) are not available for a Lessons Learned session.

> Organizations have an ineffective lessons capture process. Lesson learning crucially needs a standard lessons reporting format and structure, an effective approach to root cause analysis, a focus on lesson quality, openness and honesty, and a validation process.

> Project teams do not see the benefit of a Lessons Learned session. Lessons Learned captured on a project seldom benefit that project. They benefit future projects. Often, the project sponsor and manager see capturing Lessons Learned as simply another chore that provides his or her project with little value, especially if the Lessons Learned procedure is complex, takes a fair amount of resources and time to implement, and management has not provided adequate resources to perform the work. The solution here is to have a simple procedure, ensure projects have the resources and time to implement the procedure, and hold project managers accountable for following the procedure.

> An ineffective lessons dissemination process. The value of even well-crafted reports is often undermined because they are not distributed effectively. Most dissemination is informal, and as a result development and adoption of new practices is haphazard. Generally, project teams must actively seek reports in order to obtain them. There is no trusted, accessible repository that provides Lessons Learned information to project teams company-wide, although some departments do have lessons repositories.

> Lack of motivation to fix the issues. There is a reluctance to make big fixes if it's not what you are being rewarded for, a reluctance to learn from other parts of the organization, and difficulties in deciding which actions are valid.

> A lack of dedicated resources. Commitment to learning is wasted if resources are not available to support the process. Unfortunately, funds available to sustain corrective action, training, and exercise programs are even leaner than those available for staff and equipment. Lesson-learning and lesson management need to be resourced. Roles are needed to support the process, such as those seen in the US Army and the RCAF, or in Shell. Under-resourcing lesson-learning is a major reason why the process so often fails.

> A lack of leadership involvement in and commitment to the learning process. This is the most critical barrier. An effective Lessons Learned process means having a disciplined procedure that people are held accountable to follow. It means encouraging openness about making mistakes or errors in judgment. It often means cultural or organizational change, which does not come easily in most organizations. It means leading by example. If management is unwilling to learn from their mistakes, it is unlikely that the rest of the organization will be willing to admit to mistakes either. In fact, management must reward people for being open and admitting to making mistakes, bad decisions, judgment errors, etc. This, of course, flies in the face of many corporate cultures.

> Process change versus accountability. When something goes wrong on a project, there is someone accountable. One of the biggest problems in implementing an effective Lessons Learned process is to separate the “accountability” issue from the “process” issue. Accountability is important, but is something to be dealt with by management. Lessons Learned must deal with the process deficiency that caused the problem (e.g., inadequate procedure, too much of a rush, inadequate training, poor communications, etc.). Once a Lessons Learned process focuses on blame or finger-pointing, the process will soon fade into oblivion.

> Not using Lessons Learned in the initiation and planning phases of new projects. You should ensure that projects in these stages incorporate Lessons Learned from prior projects by making a Lessons Learned session mandatory.

Closing thoughts

Instead of leaning the little lessons, like improving small aspects of projects, I think it would be very valuable to learn the big lessons, instead of relearning them time and time again by making the same mistakes on similar projects.

There are many reasons why lesson learning is not working for most organizations. Perhaps the underlying causes include organizations treating lesson learning as a system, rather than as a product (i.e., a report with documented lessons), and a failure to treat lesson learning with the urgency and importance that it deserves.

If learning lessons is important (and it usually is), then the process needs proper attention, not lip service.
Posted on Monday, August 05, 2019 by Henrico Dolfing