Thursday 28 October 2010

Lessons escalation, and the issue of credibility

Originally uploaded by Thunderchild7

I was musing today on the issue of escalating lessons, and therefore the issue of the credibility of the lessons themselves.

Imagine a set of lessons originating with a team. The team identifies the lessons, and assigns actions to deal with them. If all of the actions associated with the lessons can be applied within the team, then there is no problem. The actions can be assigned by the project manager or the team leader, who has the correct authority to require people to do things. Whoever manages the lessons learned process for the project can then make sure that the lessons are closed out.
However, sometimes the action is for somebody outside the team to take. Maybe the team has identified a company process that needs to be updated or written. Maybe an equipment redesign is needed. These are actions for either the company process owner or the person who holds the contract with the equipment supplier. Neither of these people is in the team, and the team leader doesn’t have authority to tell them what to do. The action has to be escalated to a level where the required authority lies. This may be with the head of projects, the leader of a particular functional discipline, or a member of the senior level steering group. In each case, this person or group of people have to be bought into the lesson learning process, realise that lessons need to lead to changes, and be willing to assign actions to the correct people so that these changes are made.
Sometimes the action lies outside that organisation. Imagine two companies working together on a project. One team in one company identifies actions which need to be taken jointly. The lesson has to be escalated to a level where decisions can be made which affect both companies.
This is where the issue of credibility lies.
Will people at this decision-making level actually believe the lessons?
Take an extreme example. The Deepwater Horizon disaster.
BP have already done an internal investigation, and published a set of lessons. Many actions are identified, most of them for the company to handle, some of them with inter-company implications. But will anyone accept these lessons as being valid? Even if the investigation was done with complete impartiality and thoroughness, BPs bad press and financial and legal exposure means those lessons are going to lack external credibility, and have of course already been challenged by Transocean, Halliburton, and sectors of the press and senate. In a case like this, the only option is to re-investigate, through the use of an impartial body, which is of course what the US administration is planning to do (although you could question whether even they are impartial).

This is an extreme case, but something similar may happen whenever lessons are escalated to a point where a decision needs to be made outside the organisation or unit that identified the lesson, and people start to think "is this objective, or is it just their opinion"? It's that differentiation again between opinion and knowledge.
So it is quite possible, and may in fact be a general rule, that lessons can be escalated only so far, before they need to be impartially re-examined, and that point comes when the lesson reaches a point where decisions need to be made outside the organisation which identified the lesson.

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