Wednesday 26 May 2010

Lessons learned definition

Day 1 "Learner"
Originally uploaded by Little Silver
There is a lot of fuzziness about the topic of learning and lessons, and I thought it was worth sharing a couple of definitions.

There is very valuable distinction to be made between lessons learned and lessons identified, a distinction which is made very clear in the lesson learning systems applied in the UK military sector.

The operational units of the UK Ministry of Defence define an identified lesson as learning which has the potential to add value and which needs to be communicated, and recognise that a lesson does not become learned until something changes as a result.

I think we could therefore work with the following definitions

A lesson identified is a recommendation, based on analysed experience (positive or negative), from which others can learn in order to improve their performance on a specific task or objective.

A lesson learned is a change in personal or organisational behaviour, as a result of learning from experience.

Ideally this will be a permanent, institutionalised change, but we know that lessons are not always permanent, and can be unlearned as well as learned, so I will leave the word ‘institutionalised’ out of the definition for the moment.

So if learning a lesson has to involve a change in behaviour, perhaps the change IS the lesson.

So you could say
"I always look over my shoulder before opening the car door - that's a lesson I learned from a cyclist friend".
"We always specify in the contract that our contractors have a demonstrable and effective knowledge management system - that's the lesson we learned from that repeat mistake in Malaysia".
"Since the holiday in Madrid, I always pack my medicines bag in my carry-on baggage. I've learned that lesson!"

Without the change, the lesson has not been learned. Therefore the change is the learned lesson.


Anonymous said...

Excellent Work Nick.

Organisations these days quite often fool themselves into thinking that they are noting down 'lessons learned' after the completion of a project however they are only noting 'lessons identified'. If they stop at the noting down of 'identified' lessons then they will never 'learn' the lesson.

Thanks for the insight.

Nick Milton said...

Thank you, anonymous

blooming fifty said...

My organisation is fond of collecting Lessons Learned, documenting it into "Do's and Don'ts" book, but mistakes are repeated. How do you make them learn?

Nick Milton said...

How do you make them learn?

Firstly you ensure that the lessons loop is closed (and it sounds as if your organisation stops at the identification and documentation stage), and then you introduce a degree of governance; setting clear expectations and accountabilities. That's the short high level answer.

You can find much more detail in my book "The Lessons Learned Handbook", and more detail in this blog (click on the Lessons Learned tag on the right). I hope these help!

Admin said...

Hello Nick
Thanks for an inspiring blog.
I am a student at the Danish Army Academy and i am working with a project that deals with "Lessons Idetified to Lessons Learned on company level" I have just ordered your book "The lessons learned handbook" - do you have other suggestions for books with the same subject? WHat are you inspired by?


Jesper Lentz

Nick Milton said...

Hi Jesper. There are few if any books on this topic, which is why I wrote mine. You can find the NATO lessons learned handbook online on the jallc site, and this might also be useful for you. I can also recommend Nancy Dixon's book "common knowledge". Also Catherine Barney's research thesis on lesson learning is good.

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