Tuesday 5 May 2009

Making lessons stick - the need for actions

student teacher
Originally uploaded by peiqianlong

In our newsletter of winter 2008, we talked about lessons learned, and the need to close the lessons learned loop. More of our thinking on the topic can be found on this YouTube video. The key point in the article and the video is that a lesson is not an end in itself; a lesson is an identification of a process improvement and it needs to change something. Something needs to change, as a result of the lesson. Lessons that sit in the lessons learned database, or even worse, in the back of a project report, are worthless unless something changes as a result.

This observation has another follow-on, which is that a lesson needs to be associated with an action if it’s going to have any effect. I think this is a really important conclusion, and I have seen it working very well in two settings; oil drilling, and the military. I will use Oil Drilling as an example of how this works.

A drilling crew drill a well. On a regular basis they discuss their progress against the plan, and what they have achieved, and they identify things have gone well and things should have not gone well. They look at root causes, and they identify the learnings associated with those root causes. And then they go one step further –they identify an action to embed the lesson.

Say they were experimenting with the drilling mud, and found an additive which helped increase stability and stopped the hole collapsing while drilling an unstable part of the section. The lesson is obvious – “additive X should be used while drilling section Y”. The action is also obvious – "update the relevant part of the drilling guidelines" (as well as "order several sacks of additive X").

The drillers use a lessons database which allows actions to be assigned, and the actions are then tracked, and closed out when the action has been completed. So what sort of actions are associated with lessons? In the example above, the action is to update a process or procedure. If there is no process or procedure, maybe the action is to write one. Or maybe the action is to update reference material, or update training material, or make a change to resourcing or to organisational structure or to equipment.

In the military, the action is often to update the doctrine (doctrine is the military word for standard operating procedure), and somebody said to me recently “a lesson is not learnt until doctrine is changed”. This is true where the action is a doctrine update, but the more general statement would be to say “a lesson is not learned until action is taken to institutionalise the learning” where institutionalisation means embedding the new learning in doctrine, procedure, structure, training or resourcing. Then if you can track the action, you can introduce a degree of governance to the learning process.

Picture from Flickr creative commons, originally uploaded by peiqianlong

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