A lessons learned summary, also known as an after action review, is an integral piece of the project management continuous improvement process. The lessons learned is the documented summary of both positive and negative aspects of a project over a given period and should be conducted throughout the project’s lifecycle. With proper timing and planning, the lessons learned exercise represents an invaluable opportunity to collectively review progress, assess strengths and identify areas for future product, process or project improvements.
For many, the trouble lies in getting the effort off the ground. The aim of this article is to provide a general framework for preparing a lessons learned document. The Project Management Institute proposed a five-step path toward implementing a lessons learned summary. I suggest an additional step (Act) to stress that the information is not simply collected, but rather (after) action plans are developed to drive change within the project team and enterprise.
Figure 1: Process Flow for Preparing a Lessons Learned Summary
The following are a few key guidelines for after action reviews. Be sure to download our free lessons learned template as a guide to help you get started.
Encourage all stakeholders to collect data for lessons learned as the project progresses.
It is the project manager’s responsibility to stress the importance of the lessons learned effort and schedule the time to collect the data, however it is crucial that the project team collect information. The broader group, including leadership, should participate in the assessment of data to drive change in the organization. Publishing project lessons learned and sharing the results with your PMO or leadership often prevents mistakes being repeated and ensures that best demonstrated practices are highlighted for implementation across the organization.
Solicit feedback before the information becomes lost.
The military developed an After Action Review (AAR) as a mechanism to capture the soldier’s experience immediately after combat. The process recognizes the criticality of obtaining constructive feedback from the “field unit” as rapidly as possible to utilize the information to greatest effect.
If one is managing a 3-year project, the chances of collecting meaningful data about the earlier phases of the project become increasingly small as time progress. Capturing the information at regular intervals ensures that the information is relevant. Closure of a stage gate or phase represents a natural pause for reflection. If preceded by a significant milestone, the lessons learned is becomes even more valuable as it can capture all the pain points which crystallize in the days and weeks leading up to the milestone event.
We decided to perform a lessons learned survey after a significant FDA submission milestone. Once the milestone was complete, we had the time and clarity to reflect on what went well and where there were areas for improvement. Areas for immediate improvement, such as meeting management, were identified and agreed to by the team to implement immediately. Because the review was performed while the project was still active, we had the opportunity to benefit from our implementation plan right away.
How Can I Best Prepare a Lessons Learned?
Keeping a Lessons Learned journal or project diary from the project start to its close helps keep the information fresh. A good practice is to have a running lessons learned summary database, accessible to all stakeholders as a means to capture collective input progressively from project inception to close. Allow time in each weekly or biweekly update to ruminate on (and track) those things which may fall under the category “areas for future improvement”. Especially for complex, lengthy projects, committing all the miscues, improvement actions and observations to memory is a daunting task. A short note format updated regularly is all that is needed to trigger memory of a process needing improvement. Record observations, even if they seem to be small; big problems may arise from a series of small beginnings.
Employ a written format for responses.
We tend to use a series of standard questions for similar projects. The overlap of questions provides a standardization to allow comparison of responses over time and between various project groups. Second, I find that having to articulate a response is short essay format prompts more creativity and provides a deeper level of thought.
Question 1: Did the project management methodology work well?
Question 1 (modified): Name some aspects of the project management methodology which served the project well. Provide some areas for improvement of the project management .
Finally, I recommend the use of Survey Monkey® or other low-cost online survey platforms, which allow collection of anonymous responses for after action reviews and lessons learned summaries. The responses automatically categorized and graphed for easy review and presentation.
Group Like Responses together to develop themes
Often, stakeholders may have similar observations framed in a slightly different manner. Grouped responses, especially shown graphically can have a powerful effect in zeroing in on areas for improvement. If multiple respondents highlight the need for more personal contact and discussion among distributed teams, then this should be grouped with other similar topics and added to a list for future improvements. Free programs are available for easy generation of word clouds. Filtering your responses through a word cloud generator is an effective method for visually assessing the use of certain words. Do words such as “teamwork”, “collaboration”, “goals”, “fun” or “learning” register larger than others? If so, you may want to capture what you’re doing right.
Schedule time to review and develop and Action Plan
The first step is to collect the data, but more critical is to review with the stakeholders and create action plans for process and project improvement. Often, it makes good sense to divide actions into those which can be adopted immediately and those which may be addressed over a longer time horizon or which may be implemented by the organization as a future standalone project. For example, we chose to categorize actions as follows:
Implement immediately: request for video conferencing rather than teleconferencing
Identified for future improvement: revision of spare parts ordering process
Focus on the project and processes to avoid unnecessary criticism. Natalie Semczuk of the “Digital Project Manager” proposes a “Problem, Impact, Recommendation” process flow which naturally focuses on the problem and process and leads to strategizing a solution.
Store the data in a retrievable format and share with the organization
The information collected should be summarized in such a way that it brings clarity and context to your project management and leadership colleagues- long after the project team has adjourned. Powerpoint® is an excellent medium and allows for easy introduction of background and overall concept slides. Ensure that the lessons learned become part of the organizational assets by both archiving and distributing the summary broadly.
In closing, lessons learned is a powerful tool to capture and analyze the experiences underpinning project successes and failures. Reflecting on the lessons learned at the project close and incorporating a review of past projects at the outset of new endeavors is a leap toward project and organizational success. We offer several free templates to put these principles into action for your next project. Please check them out here: https://freeprojectmanagementtemplates.com/all-templates/
- Rowe, S. F. & Sikes, S. (2006). Lessons learned: taking it to the next level. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2006—North America, Seattle, WA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
- After Action Review (AAR) Process – Learning from Your Actions Sooner Rather than Later https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newPPM_73.htm
- Why and How To Document Lessons Learned (With Lessons Learned Template)