It is fairly common for companies to hold a lessons learned session after a major project or an incident to understand the things that did not go well and could be done better next time. Unfortunately many of these types of sessions I have seen over the years do not really accomplish much in the way of sustainable improvement for the company.
Learning is not necessarily an easy thing for individuals, much less teams and organizations, and it often takes a cultural shift to create the type of environment where deep learning takes place and truly sustainable change occurs.
THE ELEMENTS OF LEARNING
There are several elements that need to exist for a team to learn from past events and use the learning to drive improvement. In no particular order, these elements consist of the following:
- A Process for Learning: People on the team need to understand how to learn, in particular the PLAN-DO-STUDY-ACT (PDSA) cycle. The PDSA cycle is based on the concept that learning is driven by continual stating and testing of hypotheses. If a project experienced problems, for example, the team needs to consciously understand what it expected to happen, including the processes, systems, etc. that were supposed to drive the expected results. In the end, it is these things that need to be adjusted to change the result next time.Sustainable change is not driven by the memory of an individual or the team in place at the time. People move on and teams change, and if the processes and systems used for the next project are not adjusted to apply the learning, results will very likely not change.
- Appreciation for Standardization: The organization needs to understand and believe in the benefits of standardized work. If individuals are allowed to stray from standards – something that is much more common than people like to admit – there is nothing to assure that changes made will be followed in the future. Standardization also provides an anchor for learning because it describes the process that is expected to be followed and drive results that meet expectations. A standard that cannot be followed or results that do not meet expectations identifies a problem that, through the PDSA cycle, will drive learning and improvement.
- Confidence to Learn: In many organizations, learning from others can be seen as a weakness. Especially in organizations where internal competition is strong, learning from a peer can affect a person’s career progression. This feeling can drive people to discard improvements made in other areas of the company to the point where learning is completely stifled.
- Effective Problem-Solving: Improvements made in one area are often expected to be immediately adopted in one or more other areas that perform similar work. Implementing a change without clearly understanding the problem being addressed can negatively affect performance. People should actually be discouraged from applying an improvement from another area without first doing some level of problem-solving to assure that the change benefits performance.
I’ve attended many lessons learned sessions that, although the people involved did an excellent job of understanding the problems experienced with past events, resulted in little change. Understanding and addressing the above elements can greatly improve the benefits associated with these efforts and drive a culture of learning and continual improvements.