Thursday 13 January 2011

The 20-year lesson

20 year oldsI have spent the last two days working with a large engineering company, sharing the lessons from one of their large mega-projects.

One thing that became quickly apparent was that many of these lessons were not new. They had been identified many times before.

One of the participants described them as "20 year lessons". As he described it - "we have known about these things for 20 years, yet we keep on making the same mistakes time and again".

This was a case of the organisation knowing what to do and how to do it, but somehow that knowledge not reaching the individual decision-makers in the individual projects. So people ended up making decisions and choosing solutions which were known to be faulty.

The solution, the meeting decided, was to standardise equipment and processes wherever possible. The best knowledge could be embedded into the standards, and if people followed the standards, then faulty solutions would not recur. Then perhaps we will see the end of the 20-year lessons.


Simon Dueckert said...

Perhaps it is a good idea to be very careful with the term "learned". In my opinion something is learned when the behaviour or practice has changed on the basis of new insights (not when the insight is written down".

Most of the existing "Lessons Learned Databases" should be "Lesson to Learn Databases" then :-)

Best regards
Simon Dueckert

Nick Milton said...

You are absolutely correct Simon, and I was using sloppy language (which I have now edited).

I totally agree - a lesson is not learned until something changes as a result (see here

Barbara Fillip said...

There's also an assumption that if it's learned, we won't forget it. I'm not sure that assumption is correct. Even when a lesson is embedded in some new process, the next time the problem shows up, it won't be exactly the same problem, so we won't necessarily be ready for it.

Nick Milton said...

I think there's two issues there Barbara - one is "forgotten" and the other is "changing context".

If the lessons is embedded in process AND the context is captured as well, THEN we should be able to review the context and see if ours is different enough to merit review.

Certainly the 20-year lessons we discussed this week could have been largely solved by codification.

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