What is a Lessons Learned System?
If you've been around project management for a while you've heard of the concept of lessons learned. Often completed at the end of a project in the form of a post-mortem or retrospective, lessons learned are collected because the project checklist tells you to do it. Rather than being another tedious project closeout task at the conclusion of a long arduous project, lessons learned can and should be a much more powerful instrument that can yield great savings in terms of time and money. So, how do you do this? First off, don't look at a lesson learned as single one off item that's jotted down with the hope that you'll never encounter that situation again. Instead, think of lessons learned as a system. A system involves the orchestration of people, process and tools to achieve a desired outcome. Let’s take each of these three elements and break it down:
People – whether someone is working in a team or on their own they face challenges every day that are overcome by learning something about their environment, their tools or the procedures in which they operate. At some point their team, another team or another individual will encounter the same or a similar challenge. If they’re lucky they may know the answer or may know someone with the answer. Essentially people are knowledge but it’s difficult to know who has the knowledge you need. Only when the knowledge is extracted and cataloged can the knowledge be used effectively. A culture of learning needs to be fostered so the value of individual knowledge is valued and those with it are encouraged to share it. Everyone in an organization has knowledge that could be considered a lesson learned but only if they understand the value it has to the collective will they feel compelled to share it. Having a culture that rewards the mining of the collective knowledge and makes it available for others is integral and essential to a lessons learned system.
Process – the collection of techniques and procedures that serve as guidelines or mandates for how individuals or teams must operate. A good lessons learned system will provide guidance with respect to how and when lessons learned must be collected. In mature systems it is not unusual for teams to be required to collect and review lessons learned not only at the completion of a project but also at major milestones, phases or stage gates. The process should go further than that and encourage review and assessment of lessons learned as part of risk reviews and when issues are encountered. Taking this further yet again, the process should encourage lesson learners to capture their lessons at the very point that they realize that they’ve learned something that could be of value to others.
Tools – any good lessons learned system must have three key functional elements: storage, data quality and ease of recall. The storage mechanism should be easily accessible and allow the flexibility to enter data that provides: context, a description of what was learned and supporting information such as images and documents. To ensure that the information entered is correct and consistent with corporate policies and procedures a review process should exist. Lastly for the system to be effective, the information that goes in should be easily recalled so that people that need the information can get to it quickly and efficiently. This is usually done with robust search mechanisms that include: keywords, metadata and pre-built searches that facilitate common functions.
When one or more of these elements doesn’t exist the system can be less than adequate. While having a systematic approach to lessons learned is not an absolute guarantee of its success, it is a major contributor to sharing corporate knowledge. There are a few other typical challenges that need to be overcome which we’ll address in a future post.