Table of Contents:
Lessons Learned, or Re-learned
Experience plays a significant role in learning, as such, it would seem obvious that it is in our interest to make experience an integral part of lesson learned. However, if that were truly the case organizations would plan key points into their projects to both learn and capture that experience. While most organizations do have some form of lesson learned program it is commonly an afterthought or operated primarily when there is a problem. (NOTE: while all problems are said to be opportunities, they are not usually capitalized upon during a project due to time and monetary constraints.) Perhaps you have been involved with solving problems and capturing those answers into the organizations’ lessons learned database that nobody knows where it resides or has the time to revisit, This historical record sits there until the issue is repeated and recaptured. This type of lessons learned program serves no actual purpose except to “check a box” and diminishes the organization, project’s and individual development. While issues or problems cannot always be forecasted, they can sometimes be narrowed down (using historical data and or tactic knowledge) to key points of a process or project. This makes it possible to plan into the process or project thus allowing for a more structured and useful lesson learned program not to mention placing emphasis on learning. This would be an example of planning for an opportunity rather than reacting to a situation.
Think of a project that you were involved with that you knew there were certain points (we will refer to these points from now on as: Lesson Points) that historically came with difficulties. Now think of what actions could have been added to the plan that would capitalize upon those lesson points. By capitalize we mean minimize or alleviate them all together and provide strategic information to verify the effectiveness of those actions.
If you had a project jump right to mind in the question above, that would mean you have experience with what we refer to as the Lesson Re-Learned program. As we alluded to in the beginning of this section most organizations employ a lesson learned program but have little to no follow through applying what was learned. It is this lack of follow through that de-motivates people and diminishes the development of the organization. Organizational and individual development, as well motivation, are proactive items that cannot be ignored or placated without diminishing their return, and thus, rendering them ineffective.
Burning Our Hand on the Same Stove and Motivation
Projects are unique, each present distinctive challenges, though these challenges may have a common theme allowing an extrapolation to other future projects. We can see in projects, functional areas, and business processes where this repeated
Figure 1.5 Burning our hand on the same metaphorical stove over and over again is not constructive.
failure to learn costs our organization dearly. Learning and adapting are hallmarks of good project management and of functioning organizations. Making mistakes is not an issue as that is how we learn.
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
Rita Mae Brown
However, we should not consistently burn our hand on the same stovetop and act surprised. If you find your project or organization making the same set of mistakes, you have a learning problem. To be sure not all can be known, but if you are learning every day, more is known every day.
There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.
Laurence J. Peter
It may at times seem like the organization as an entirety is not capable of learning. Learning at the organization level is walking a tight rope. Learn something productive and necessary, while not excluding alternatives that may work next time. This requires understanding what matters and what may appear to matter but does not really.
We should be careful to get out of an experience all the wisdom that is in it — not like the cat that sits on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.
Each failure, each success provides us with an opportunity to learn. If we maximize that opportunity (spread throughout the organization) we become stronger as an organization. We learn more as a group about what works and what does not work. This is helpful for the product, service, process and for the project. This requires paying attention to what is going on and listen to those that have learned lessons that we have not yet learned, as well as teach (or coach) lessons to those who have not learned. Student and teacher are one and the same.
Our personal experience suggests repeatedly making the same mistakes, often results in employees suffering the same consequences every time does not improve morale. One of us worked at a company where another senior manager said, “it is okay to make mistakes, but can’t we make new mistakes rather than the same old mistakes?” Decisions made by the management can have an impact on the employee, and poor decisions have consequences on the business’s financial viability, but it does not end, there are consequences on the employees.
Lessons Learned and Organizational Development
To remain relevant, the organization must constantly work to understand and adapt to the external environment as well as improve the internal environment. Any talk about the organization learning really means the people learning both as individuals and as a group, and as group of groups. At first blush it may seem to be obvious how a learning organization would use lessons learned to create a continously evolving and improving environment to meet the organization’s objective, though what may be less obvious is the complexity involved in doing so. Even though it does seem obvious that a robust lesson learned program would be beneficial to just about every organization at many levels, based upon experience, it may seem lessons learned programs are not given the attention needed to achieve the maximum benefit. This could be for any number of reasons from the program being too cumbersome, insufficent time allocated for the work, to a lack of understanding on how this helps the organization over the long run. There is no wrong or right way to set up and run a lesson learned program because it must be tailored to the organization, its people, and its objectives, we will not discuss the setup or basic operation of a lessons learned program. We will, however, review some items that are needed to help make the program effective for everyone.
What is the objective of a lesson learned program as seen by the different levels (CEO, CFO, Managers, Supervisors, and Workers), departments, and people within your organization? Are these objectives at odds with on another? While you may intuit that the overall objective would be the same for everyone, it may not be. Even an individual’s perspective may not be the same over the course of a project’s life cycle. These disparate answers could be due to a lack of “Systems Thinking” or an individual’s mental model. In The Fifth Discipline, systems thinking is described as a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems.’ The lesson learned program’s objective may not change during a project’s life cycle. It may change over time as the organization adapts to opportunities internal and external. Altering the objectives of learning has to balance between adapting and consistency that provides a foundation for the effort.
These are obstacles to success to be sure, however, there are other hurdles. For example, in the article Six Myths of Product Development1 (fallacy 1, High utilization of resources will improve performance), shows companies tend to move to ensure the team members are engaged during most if not all of the hours they are at work or a high utilization. This leaves little time for learning or even adapting to circumstances presented to the project. Essentially this effort to improve throughput by accounting for all of the available hours, actually has the opposite consequence. Another fallacy of interest from the article, fallacy 3, Our development plan is great; we just need to stick to it. Believing your development plan is great, means you are not likely to be thinking of ways to make things better. This perspective means we believe we do not need to invest time in improving, this deters the need for learning. Lastly from the article, is fallacy 6, We will be more successful if we get it right the first time, this misguided belief prohibits experimentation our team members may be afraid to try new methods as any failure may come with some negative feedback from the management.
Why Lessons Learned Are vital
Competition does not get easier as the organization grows. If our industry or segment is profitable, we can expect other companies to nudge their way into the space. If the business is not profitable, then the organization either goes out of business or must find ways to become a profitable by adapting, or changing the business into something that can deliver value to the customer. Tills is in effect learning, and it is likely that projects will be the mechanisms for that change and learning. Even established profitable businesses must work to remain in business lest they fall into the previous category of a business on the edge of failure and closing. Success today does not mean success tomorrow. According to Forbes the expected return on investment in the stock market will drop from the 7% to a future of 3%. 
Lessons learned provide a means to improve quality, schedule, and the overall effectiveness of an organization if employed properly. This does not infer that every lesson learned program will be run the same way, it is implying, however, the program run it must be modeled specifically for the organization using it. While the overall objective may be the same, how each part of the organization contributes to this objective may be different, consider an organization that develops and manufactures products as an example. There will be different ways in which the product development portion of the company will contribute than the manufacturing portion. However, there may be opportunities for learning via the shared work areas and work exchanges between these groups. For example, the design for manufacturing and assembly are areas the development staff will need to be part, as the development work delivers a product for manufacturing, ’[he objectives may be different in support of the common organization goal, but collaboration is required for either to meet their respective objectives.