3 Steps to Great Lessons Learned

admin/ March 18, 2015/ Blog Posts/ 0 comments

I continue to have mixed feelings about lessons learned processes.

On one hand they are a great opportunity to reflect, drive initiatives forward into new projects and across existing programs based on those things that went well and similarly those that didn’t.

On the other hand, I’ve seen many of these processes and sessions where people either won’t speak up for fear of reprisal and even if they do, they only scratch the surface of issues. This is because they assess and try to fix symptoms not causes and a lot of the time, the fix is beyond the capability of mere project team members to address, rather requiring absent senior level people to make fundamental or costly change which ultimately doesn’t occur.

Regardless of my mixed feelings, I do always utilise a lessons learned process in all of my tenders, proposals and projects, but I do this knowing the process can be flawed, and I’m of the belief that if there is a problem, why not just get on and fix it, why do you need to wait or initiate a formal process to do this?

Let’s put these viewpoints aside, but I ask you to go into these processes with eyes wide open and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

Step 1 – Setting the Scene

Lessons learned processes are often viewed as optional, un-important or the biggest killer, “no one acts on what we contribute, so why bother?”

You need to establish an environment where this is not the case. Do these things to start with so that it is clear to all team members that this is important and that you as Project Manager or someone else with authority, are serious about seeing it work and acting on the outcomes:

  1. Have your project sponsor stand up at a meeting or presentation or even send an email to everyone outlining their support and commitment to a robust Lessons Learned process.
  2. Ask this person to include it on your personal performance objectives for the project/year so you are motivated to see it through.
  3. Make sure it is an inherent part of your Quality Management System, if you are certified by any of the ISO Quality Standards, it will be anyway.
  4. Ask the Quality Manager to include it in any audit they do on the project.
  5. Have your customer become involved in the Lessons Learned process, you’ll be surprised what they bring to the table. Clients I’ve dealt with won’t only comment on Quality aspects that affect them, they’ll actively help you work inefficiencies out and innovation into your business as it helps them in the long run with reduced costs and cycle times.

Step 2 – Start Early

Set up a lessons learnt collection system when the project kicks off.

It should be introduced at the project kick off meeting, it should be visible, it should be easy to access (input), preferably assign someone to input and coordinate actions as usually a Lessons Learned log left somewhere on the intranet will never be used.

  1. Make it an agenda item for your project meetings from day one, so there is always visbility and recognition that this is important, make actionee’s report on completion.
  2. Lessons Learned has two time zones, those things you learn during the project that you need to or can implement now to improve, and those things you can learn and implement in future projects, make this clear upfront, both are welcome.
  3. Establish a reward or recognition system for people that regularly contribute to it. This is done all the time in Health and Safety reporting and awards, when you set the scene early the same can be achieved here, a simple email of recognition will do.
  4. To give it the impetus it requires set it up and sell it as a vehicle for continuous improvement. Too many people wait until the end of the project to document lessons learned, but early on is where most of the wins and losses are greatest. People forget what actually happened , people leave projects and most of all you deny yourself the opportunity to roll project execution improvements into the project on a continuous basis, why leave it until the next project.
  5. Start reporting the number of Lessons Learned contributed and implemented as a KPI and make this visible to the team and your management team in monthly reports.
  6. Measure the results in a tangible way, when people see $’s saved, retention, schedule or cycle time improvements they see that this process is working and will be motivated to keep doing it.
  7. When you achieve the previous point and it has a tangible benefit for your client, write up a brief showcase and have your client co-sign it with you. Show this to your manager’s, other projects and put it in your next tender as proof you are a continually improving and innovative company.

Step 3 – Lessons Learned Workshop

Hopefully by following the previous 2 Steps you’ll have collected most of your Lessons Learned during the project and the workshop will be a confirmation of these and a chance to add some more and reflect, but more importantly now’s your chance to make any fundamental changes for future projects.

  1. Bring in a senior manager(s) that has the authority to take great ideas for improvement to the senior leadership team, choose this person wisely, they’ll need to be able to make more junior people feel comfortable to speak their minds.
  2. Address the root cause of problems not the symptoms.
  3. Don’t go on a witch hunt, this is a session to identify problems, learn from them and put strategies in place to rectify things, not to play a blame game, people won’t contribute if fingers get pointed.
  4. Identify clear improvement actions, timeframes for implementation and owners (who have the capability/authority to deliver).
  5. Often, if you don’t have a PMO, actions will not be followed through when the project team disbands, so work out who will have carriage of these actions outside the project team, preferably the person in Point 1.
  6. Actions will fall generally into three categories, requiring different types of people to implement them, be wary of this and delegate accordingly:
    1. Organizational issues. These are problems or innovative initiatives that need the greater organisation to implement, this is why you brought the senior person along, so he can take them away. These are usually things the team comes up with but do not have the clout to implement.
    2. Project Management Process issues. These are improvements to the way you execute projects and you will need to ensure whoever has carriage of your organisations project management process takes these away to implement.
    3. Program Management issues. These are initiatives that could be implemented on your organisations other projects and are usually also items you should be feeding into your Business Development team to ensure they tender their next projects inclusive of these initiatives and the showcases outlined above.

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