Lessons are learned during the execution of any significant project. A major challenge is to articulate and collect the lessons learned in a manner that supports communicating them to others. Collection of lessons learned is critical to quality improvement.
Lessons Learned Program Goal
The goal of a lessons learned program is to capture unique elements of knowledge learned during a project and transfer the knowledge (or make it available) throughout the organization so that successes are repeated, and issues are avoided or quickly resolved. This is a major part of any sound quality management program. This article focusses on the collection of project lessons learned and provides insight into issues that come up during collection and ways to avoid them.
Value Of Lessons Learned
For projects, there are few things more valuable than experience-based learnings of what works and what causes problems; often referred to as ‘lessons learned’. Lessons are learned in all types of projects from software to industrial construction. They are also highly valuable in operational settings including turnarounds and maintenance activities. Collection of lessons learned is critical to improving project execution performance for future projects and, in some cases, ongoing projects. The hard-won knowledge contained in each lesson can lead to cost saving, schedule improvement, improved productivity, and better quality of the finished product.
Unfortunately, lessons learned programs often fail to provide the value they should. Lessons are often referred to as ‘lessons re-learned’. This is a tremendous loss of improvement opportunity in an organization and is a failure of the quality system. Much of the issue comes from the way the lessons are collected.
Lessons Learned Best Practices
There are several collection best practices that can improve lessons learned program results. Keep in mind that lessons can be successes or issues that have come up. In many cases, lessons fail to get into the hands of the people that need them. This causes ‘lessons relearned’ which is demoralizing and causes a lack of buy-in in the lessons learned collection process. The dissemination model is not a part of this article, but a strong process must be in place and communicated to those attending the sessions if the sessions are going to be enthusiastically supported.
Lessons Learned Template
A common factor to the success of any lessons learned program is a sound template to record the lesson on. The template should capture:
- Submitters name and email for future clarifications.
- General information to help categorize the lesson.
- Lesson background information (helping future readers understand the situation).
- A lesson learned statement that clearly and concisely describes the lesson (start by completing the sentence ‘The lesson learned is:’).
- Describe the impact and benefits associated with implementing the lesson.
- Estimate the cost impact on the current project had the lesson been known earlier on.
- Identify any actions that would help ensure the benefits can be achieved.
- Have two reviewers to ensure the lesson is vetted and improved prior to being passed along to others.
Continuous Lessons Learned Submission
Ongoing submission of lessons learned is a best practice, but it is typically not embedded in a project culture. This is achieved through an app that allows people to register a lesson using a standard template with supporting pictures, through recording them in lessons learned books stored in meeting rooms, or an email address that they can be sent to.
Lessons Learned Sessions
The most reliable way to capture lessons in a project setting is to hold focused lessons learned sessions as the project moves through its various phases. The key to a successful lessons learned session is to have:
- A well thought out template for recording and reviewing lessons.
- Excellent timing as to when the sessions are held – typically at the end of a phase or when a critical issue has been resolved.
- Well planned and facilitated sessions that do not exceed two hours.
- A facilitator that is aware of issues and pitfalls that may arise during the session.
Lessons Learned Facilitation
Issues and pitfalls that a facilitator often faces depend on the perceived success of the project and the political environment that is part of the project. The facilitator must focus participants on the processes used to execute the project and failures / improvements related to the process. Names, mistakes, and finger pointing must be avoided at all costs and any discussions that take even a slight turn down this path must be truncated. Experience dictates that the facilitator should be aware that:
- In successful projects the natural tendency is to focus on problems encountered with only a minimal focus on what made the project successful – the value comes from finding what made the project successful and which processes can be improved.
- In unsuccessful projects the natural tendency is to focus on why the project failed and to place blame for the failure – the value comes from determining which processes failed, how they failed, and steps that can be taken to ensure they don’t fail that way again. (Remember, there is no lesson in recording that a process should have been followed, it is just an Non-Conformance Report that was missed).
- If scope was cut to meet a business deadline (in the case where schedule is fixed and scope is fluid), the natural tendency is to focus on what is missing from the finished project and how this can become the next project. The value is in identifying how the processes that are responsible for scope could be improved.
- If leadership changed, the natural tendency is to focus on what the original leader ‘did wrong’ – the value comes from identifying which processes failed or if there were processes that should have been developed to assist with leadership decision making.
- If only project leaders attend the session there is a natural tendency to avoid the tactical lessons and focus only on strategic ones – the value is in both and the facilitator should consider having a leadership team specific session if numerous strategic lessons are expected and a separate session with the tactical team for the tactical aspects.
Writing down the unique elements of knowledge learned during a project so it can be made available throughout the organization. The goal is to repeat successes and avoid or quickly resolve failures in similar situations.
By following a template, relevant information in an easily searchable format is included in the lesson. A review process is used to help keep the lesson clear and concise.
Quality is focused on reducing costs and improving processes. Similar to quality audits, lessons learned often provide insight into areas for improvement within a process which helps to reduce costs.
Capturing lessons learned first requires that individuals on the project are aware they are needed and encouraged to write them down and submit. A recognition program also helps. An attractive template with clear instructions throughout will encourage submission.
1. The lesson learned is that a session facilitator should send out the lessons learned template with a meeting reminder two days prior to the meeting. Each recipient should be asked to prepare and bring two lessons to the session.
Lessons learned are a key element in any quality assurance program for projects. Lessons should be either collected continuously, during end of phase sessions, or when a major issue has been resolved. When prepared correctly, lessons learned provide valuable knowledge for the entire organization and reduce cost and schedule overruns in projects.