Friday, 17 July 2009

Are you learning to avoid mistakes, or learning to succeed?

These animals bite!
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I have been getting some responses back from my Lesson learned survey, and a couple have really surprised me. Both of them were from people I know, who work for major multinationals. One said "I recommend replacing traditional lessons learned processes with a visible learning process which addresses not only actionable preventions to lessons (things gone wrong and corrected) but also learnings (things gone right and valued for sharing and reuse)". The other guy seemed to imply (and I have a phone called booked with him to clarify) that they have "given up on Lessons Learned", and now look only at re-applying successful practices.

There were two surprises here for me. The first was that both people traditionally associated "Lessons Learned" with "Learning from mistakes and failure". I mean ONLY with learning from mistakes. Then when I though about it a little more, I realised that perhaps, for many organisations, that is correct. Perhaps there is a mindset that "Lesson Learning" means reviewing mistakes and errors only, and never looking at success.

I have two problems with this!

Firstly - any system that learns only from mistakes, builds safe processes and products designed to avoid failure. You end up with band-aid processes, held together by protective measures. Now in some cases - areas of product safety, for example - this is a good thing. In other areas, it may drive conservatism and risk avoidance. I would rather have processes designed to replicate success, than processes designed to avoid failure. There's a subtle but important difference in outlook!

Here's an example for you.

Imagine a company with a Health and Safety learning and knowledge management system, focused on learning from mistakes, and triggered by HSE incidents. Imagine it has two identical operating plants, A and B. A runs a very safe operation, and has had no safety incidents or near misses in a million man-hours of operating. B has a near miss once a quarter, and an accident every year.

Where you you think the HSE learning system focuses? It's triggered by incidents, so it focuses in plant B. But Plant A is the one that has the knowledge of "how to run a safe operation"! This knowledge will never be addressed if the learning system learns only from incidents. (We explore this further in our white paper on Knowledge Management in HSE, available on our downloads page).

Secondly, if learning only analyses mistake and failure, it becomes tarnished as a concept. People don't like it. It's a short step from "let's learn from our failure" to "Witch-hunt". People start talking about "Post-Mortems". The lessons identification exercise becomes a depressing experience. Which it does not have to be.

So lets look at this differently. Lets learn from success as well as failure. Lets celebrate success. Lets make learning proactive - learning to replicate the best. If the term "lessons learned" is tarnished, lets throw it out and use something else. "Learning from Experience" perhaps.

Personally I would not advocate going as far as the second guy, and reviewing ONLY success - there can be really valuable lessons from failures as well. Personally I would advocate learning from all projects and all operations - celebrating the successes as something worth replicating, acknowledging the challenges and difficulties as something to learn from and something that never needs happen again. Most projects are a mix of success and failure, and effective lesson-learning implies acknowledging and learning from both.

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