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5 Steps to a Successful “Lessons Learned” Process

GovLoop and Integrity Management Consulting are proud to present a 12-part series called “Conscientious Contracting: A Thoughtful Approach to Acquisition and Program Management,” that aims to address common challenges and achieve new efficiencies in government procurement.

In our recent guide titled, “Addressing the Complex Challenges Facing Today’s Acquisition Professional,” we shared several critical success factors across the acquisition lifecycle. In fact, we created a “cheat sheet” to serve as a visual reminder for you:

Of course, it’s one thing to know the success factors and it’s another to ensure that you are implementing them effectively. That’s why in this blog we are going to focus on another cross-cutting success factor — “Conduct a Lessons Learned Review After Each Phase.” Below are five steps that you can take to ensure that your organization is engaged in continuous improvement, learning important lessons along the way:

1. Schedule Lessons Learned Meetings at Project Launch (and Keep Them). Most organizations have great intentions when it comes to conducting a lessons learned session upon completing a project phase. The problem is that it’s easy to get caught up in the next phase or to spend your time on project components that require more immediate attention. Momentum and necessity propel us forward, making any concerted effort to review a previous phase feel like a lack of progress. One way to mitigate this perceived inertia is by scheduling lessons learned sessions as part of the project plan. Rather than being an extraneous activity – something that feels like something that exists outside of the project flow – set those dates in advance and get them on the integrated project team’s schedule. Resist the urge to cancel them as the urgency of other projects encroach in the moment.

2. Ask Three Simple Questions.

Let’s face it. Lessons learned sessions can be unappealing if they’re viewed as overcomplicated and time consuming. The essential lessons learned collection process really boils down to three questions:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • How can we do more of what worked and less of what didn’t work?

Anything more than that and you’ll likely find them so cumbersome that everyone will want to abandon the exercise.

3. Elicit Feedback in Advance.

Since you know the date and the questions in advance of the meeting, why not collect, aggregate and distribute responses beforehand? This step serves two primary purposes:

  • It allows the introverts or lower-ranking members of the team to have their say whereas they might not get their chance to share input during the meeting itself.
  • If you can collect and send out the combined notes before the meeting, participants can analyze the input, identify common patterns and focus team time on the nuances and specifics.

It also makes the meeting much more efficient because you won’t be wasting valuable time brainstorming from scratch.

4. Assign a Primary Note Taker to Record Accurate, Comprehensive Notes

How many times have you attended a meeting where everyone was so engaged in the discussion that nobody took the responsibility for capturing the proceedings? Various participants may have recorded incoherent scribbles, but there is no comprehensive account of what transpired during your time together. By assigning a note taker, you can avoid this unfortunate occurrence. One recommendation is to identify someone whose only role is to listen and record. Assign someone independent of the Integrated Product Team to facilitate and/or record key aspects of the lessons learned session.

Be sure they have a tool or template that allows them to easily categorize decisions captured, consensus reached/not reached, points of view. Moreover, make sure they type the notes directly into a digital document rather than handwriting them so that you lose no time in distributing the notes afterward. Bullets are best so that it’s easy to review. Another best practice is to conclude with a brief summation of new ideas and action items that resulted from the session. Attach each of those actions items to a responsible person and a timeline for completion to ensure that they get done.

5. Review Those Lessons the Next Time You Launch the Same Phase in a Subsequent Project.

So let’s say you captured those notes, distributed them and maybe even saved them in a central repository. Well done. So what keeps those notes from being nothing more than another file taking up space in your shared drive? Take them out and review them for 10-15 minutes as part of your next project. Before you even get into the specifics of a new project or project phase, remind yourself of the positives and pitfalls from prior efforts. Commit to maximizing the productive aspects of previous projects and minimizing repeat mistakes.

One other quick note is that a team may derive secondary or residual lessons learned through this process based on how well previously discovered lessons learned were implemented during the most previous engagement/project. In other words, an effective lessons learned process has a compounding effect for an organization that is committed to consistent, continuous improvement.

If you follow these five steps, I can’t guarantee that you’ll execute perfectly on every critical success factor. I am confident, however, that you’ll start to notice a gradual change over time that, in sum, will lead to new efficiencies and a culture of continuous improvement.

Do you follow this process in your organization?

Do you have any additional suggestions?

This blog was brought to you by Integrity Management Consulting, an award-winning small business and leading provider of major systems acquisition and program management support services to Federal customers. Integrity’s mission is to deliver exceptional results for government customers, employees, and the community, driven by a single value: Integrity.

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Scott Kearby

Sometimes it is difficult to get folks to identify what went wrong … if they were involved/responsible in some way they may not want to expose the issue … and if not, they may not want to be perceived as throwing a team mate under the bus. Allowing for some anonymous or unattributed input can help.

Andrea Andree

I feel like this is still missing something. Based on the lessons learned, it’s nice to figure out how to hard code the resolutions into the next phase/project/etc. It’s one thing to review the lessons learned with each phase, but as people change, that step slowly fades. Did you learn that you need to have better expectations set with SMEs? Great. Put that into your kickoff meeting agenda so you can make sure it’s done next time, not only done if you remember to review your notes.