Lessons learned or lessons learnt are recommendations for future behavior based on past experience. The lesson can be positive or negative; can include recommendations about what to
do/avoid or how to do/avoid; it can be based both on success or failure of the past experience from which one learns. Also known as Debriefings or Retrospective processes.
Lessons are learned by all – both individuals and organizations. We all learn intuitively from our own actions: a baby learns how to stand after falling again and again; an adult may learn how to order a movie ticket in advance if he misses a show due to tickets’ unavailability. Organizations also learn; in many organizations, lessons learning is a managed process.
In some sectors, especially where safety is a major concern, like space agencies, military forces, factories, etc., lessons learning is routine. Failing and learning from lessons is an essential part of innovational processes; it is therefore common to find these learnings in the high-tech industry.
In many places over the world one can join “fuckup nights” and learn stories of failures shared by other people, speaking about their mistakes and what they have learned from them.
There are many methodologies for learning lessons- all based on analyzing the past;
understanding causing factors and their corresponding root causes; and suggesting recommendations for the future.
The most common methodology After Action Review (AAR), was introduced by the United States Army.
It includes 4 questions:
a. What did we expect? Expectations could be defined in terms of targets to be met, missions to be completed, budget, time or other resources to be properly invested and used
b. What actually happened? Gaps between wish and reality are highlighted. It can help to seek for surprises as to what was expected.
c. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? The why question is asked again and again (5 times); question repetition enables deep learning and understanding of the root causes of the gaps found.
d. What is recommended? Based on the understanding of the root causes, recommendations for future are articulated: What should be avoided; how to best act; etc.
AAR is effective for both simple and complex learning processes.
The learning can be based on success, enabling the organization to replicate the success and turn it to a systematic approach; learning can be based on failures, helping the organization to prevent similar problems or failures in the future.
The learning can include both positive and negative recommendations.
After generating new lessons, it is vital to spread the new knowledge to all relevant parties, and to take steps that will help the employees know, remember and actually use the new knowledge.
Efficient and effective learning is not always easy to achieve. The main common challenges include:
a. Time: Not taking the time to learn. May occur, as organizations are always busy and in a rush, and the lessons learning is naturally the end of the process.
Organizations are encouraged to embed the process learning as part of processes, and to engage management in requesting the learning & results.
b. Cognitive Dissonance: People tend to see other peoples’ “fault”, while minimizing parts they were in charge of. This is the essence of “cognitive dissonance”- wanting to feel good with my decisions and myself.
Organizations are encouraged to overcome this challenge by focusing on what happened, rather than who was in charge of this happening, role modeling and nurturing a positive attitude towards the learning and learners.
c. Usage: In too many organizations and too many occasions the lessons learned are applied only partly.
Organizations can improve utilization of what has been learned, by defining ways to draw the knowledge near the employees, so they can use it in the time and context they may need it. Organizations are also called to make the knowledge easily accessible, for whom seek it.
- Addresses organizational specific needs; learning is important
- Focuses on activities in which we experienced something different and there is a potential of learning
- Fits the existing, leveraging what has already been achieved
- Performed gradually
- Accompanied with management commitment
Typical examples of starting points may include:
- Learning first from success
- Investing in utilization of knowledge learned from past accumulated lessons
- Role modeling: Managers being first to debrief, before requesting others to do so.
- Knowledge management
- Best practice
- Business rule
- Experience curve
- Postmortem documentation
- Risk management
- Strategic management
- Cronin, G., & Andrews, S. (2009). After action reviews: a new model for learning. Emergency Nurse (through 2013), 17(3), 32.
- Reference:Milton, N. (2010). The Lessons Learned Handbook: Practical approaches to learning from experience. Elsevier.
- Levy, M. (2017). A Holistic Approach to Lessons Learned: How Organizations Can Benefit from Their Own Knowledge. CRC Press.
- Roe, T. H. (2011). Establishing a lessons learned program: Observation, insights and lessons. Center for Army Lessons Learned