Capitalizing from past projects
the value of lessons learned
Katlyn Broadway, a project manager for SoftMax, has just put the finishing touches on her final project report before the meeting with her manager, Mark Johnson. The last few weeks have been grueling trying to get the lessons learned feedback from project participants for the final report. Katlyn thought she had properly prepared and had asked all the right people to attend the meeting. Not all the invited people attended the meeting, and it turned into a complaint session where some of the meeting attendees were upset with connotations made by other meeting attendees.
Mark could see that Katlyn was disturbed by her lessons learned experience and the lack of support from the senior management. Further, after reviewing the top three lessons learned for the project, Mark recognized that he was hearing the same issues again and realized that these were the same lessons on projects around the world.
Mark realized that SoftMax had no standards for collecting, analyzing, storing, disseminating, and reusing lessons learned. Consequently, it is losing valuable knowledge gained during projects and learning between projects. Considering that many projects have overlapping components, SoftMax can save money by not reinventing the wheel every time a new project is started. Mark felt that project managers could reduce project costs by learning from past projects, by implementing past successes, and by avoiding past failures.
During their meeting, Katlyn and Mark observed some barriers to learning lessons on projects. They concluded that project managers, to overcome these barriers, must create a learning environment that enables them to capture lessons learned and use these effectively.
Both individuals and organizations cannot afford to keep performing the same mistakes again and again. Although the concept of lessons learned has evolved into a formal and structured management practice, as an idea, the practice of capturing and archiving knowledge is not new. Using this practice involves performing two essential activities: capturing important lessons learned and making effective use of these.
Several research studies have emphasized the importance of capturing lessons learned (Besner & Hobbs, 2006; Blyth, 2004; Crosman, 2002; Parnell, Von Bergen, & Soper, 2005; Pritchard, 1997; Schindler & Eppler, 2003; Terrell, 1999; Williams, 2007) but found that these lessons were not utilized effectively (Aiyer, Rajkumar, & Haveleka, 2005; Besner & Hobbs, 2006; Blyth, 2004; Newell, 2004; Williams, 2004). Project managers agree that it is important to learn from previous projects. So why don't they take advantage of lessons from previous projects?
This paper is aimed to provide insight into the obstacles project managers face when attempting to capture lessons learned and subsequently document these lessons for easy retrieval. We also discuss the ways in which project managers can take advantage of the best practices they identify through the lessons learned process.
In the next section, we review the literature on the various aspects of capturing lessons learned and analyze our research findings and the current practices and processes which project managers use to capture lessons learned. From our findings, we have developed a questionnaire, which we outline below. We used this questionnaire to survey project management professionals. We also discuss the survey data collected in developing strategies for capturing lessons learned and using these to improve project performance. Finally, we identify our recommendations for future research and define this study's limitations.
Project management is considered the intellectual property of an organization (Kerzner, 2003a). Based on this perception, lessons learned from the past projects enable organizations to enhance their intellectual property.
Kerzner advocates that organizations should collect, distribute, and update this intellectual property for the purpose of disseminating the information to personnel who will use it for mentoring, benchmarking, and developing project management standards and templates. It is through such efforts that organizations can mature their project management practices and processes.
Benefits of Lessons Learned
Companies can save money by not reinventing the wheel every time a new project is started (Newell, 2004). Project managers can reduce project costs by learning from past projects and implementing past successes while avoiding past failures (Parnell et al., 2005). Blyth (2004) observed that projects have common themes that can be used to avoid general pitfalls related to cost management, which can be extrapolated to other knowledge areas of project management. Lessons learned can also be used to decrease the planned duration of their projects (Terrell 1999).
Hubbard (1990) believed that reviewing management, regulatory, commercial, legal, and technical lessons learned could attain large monetary returns. Hubbard opined that most projects fail because of sociological, not technical, reasons. Further, organizations can use lessons learned databases to capture project schedule, cost, and scope information (Leo 2002), in addition to using this knowledge to create estimates based on previous project costs.
Aiyer et al. (2005) observed that many development projects fail to meet schedule and budget targets as well as customers’ needs. They presented cases where lessons learned were never performed. As a remedy, these authors outlined a framework that can help organizations managed troubled projects, a framework that includes a stage where learning is captured and disseminated so as to improve the processes used to manage future projects.
Reapplying important lessons to prevent future mistakes is a core reason why organizations capture lessons learned. After reviewing several construction projects in an attempt to understand the causal factors behind the delayed construction times, Chan and Kumaraswamy (2002) suggested that many lessons learned can be reapplied to new projects to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
Creating a Learning Environment
Organizations initiate lessons learned processes with an awareness that knowledge adds value. Acknowledging that they are losing valuable knowledge gained during projects is an important first step. Project managers must recognize that knowledge sharing is not completed when the project team members complete their tasks on projects. According to Crosman (2002), management must support the lessons learned process with a demand that everyone in the organization follow lessons learned processes. However, a few organizations do not promote learning through project lessons. Von Zedtwitz (2002) noted that 80% of the research and development (R&D) projects they studied were not reviewed after project completion and no established guidelines were used with the remaining 20% of the studied projects..
Some organizations choose to complete lessons learned at the post-project review. Post-project reviews capture process knowledge (Von Zedwitz, 2002) for the project, which will be useful for future projects. Capturing lessons learned at the post-project review is better than not doing them at all. In the best scenario, lessons should be captured throughout the project lifecycle and not just at the completion of the project.
Project managers must overcome barriers that lead to organizations not retaining lessons from projects (Schindler & Eppler, 2003). They need to create a learning environment for capturing, analyzing, storing, disseminating, and reusing lessons learned from projects. Creating a learning environment that nurtures continuous improvement must be supported by organizations (Cooper, Lyneis, & Bryant, 2002). For this to happen, learning environments should establish a climate of trust where it is safe to make mistakes and it is the norm to share knowledge (Reich, 2006).
In order to remain competitive, many organizations execute several projects concurrently while trying to improve processes simultaneously. One way to achieve continuous improvement is by learning from the past projects (Newell, 2004). Newell found that social networks work better than a lessons-learned database. However, the problem with social networks is that the knowledge shared in social networks remains with people in the form of tacit knowledge. The lessons-learned process is an approach that is aimed to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge so that the knowledge can remain accessible for reference and use when required.
The Project Management Institute's (PMI) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2004) serves as a reference for project managers, but it is up to the individual organization to develop and support processes and procedures that create a learning environment. Likewise, researchers have different ideas for conducting lessons learned processes. Organizations must understand, however, that in establishing lessons learned, that there are fundamental requirements for achieving success and effectiveness (Hubbard, 1990), requirements which must be applied on all projects. These requirements include the processes of capturing, analyzing, storing, disseminating, and re-using of lessons learned.
As a first step, organizations must define the lessons (the type and the content) they need to capture and then identify the specific knowledge areas that relate to their efforts for improving project management practices and processes. Pritchard (1997) suggests that the most important lessons to be learned are the ones that are relevant and timely. In the text, Prichard argues that “By documenting lessons learned in a timely fashion, it's possible to capture not only the essence of the experience, but the spirit as well” (p.92).
Secondly, project managers must determine the method of capturing lessons learned. Hubbard (1990) found that four out of five organizations used meetings to capture lessons learned. Other two popular methods were interviews and audits.
Terrell (1999), arguing that most project lessons learned are completed as an after thought at the end of the project, suggests that lessons learned should be completed through out the duration of the project life cycle and should not be just related to a specific type of issue alone, such as one involving technical knowledge.
It is important to capture both successes and failures on projects Future projects can benefit by following the lessons learned that were successful and avoiding the failed lessons. The project team members often do not have a problem with talking about project successes. But they do often downplay negative feedback because people tend to take the failed experience personally and relate to it with emotional pain (Parnell et al., 2005).
Innovative organizations encourage people to be creative. To encourage this, senior management should ensure that people are not prevented from advancing in their careers because of previous failures and mistakes. When working in such organizations, project team members must know that their managers will tolerate errors and they expect the personnel to convey to others information that may enable future success (Parnell et al., 2005). “When an experiment failed, Edison would always ask what the failure revealed and would enthusiastically record what he had learned for future reference” (Parnell et al., p.40).
Reich & Wee (2006), citing other studies, identify tacit and explicit knowledge as different types of knowledge. Primarily, explicit knowledge has been captured on previous projects. Schindler & Eppler (2003) explain that explicit knowledge answers the what, where, and how many questions. Whereas, tacit knowledge refers to the know-how and know-why questions. Tacit knowledge is harder to obtain because it is not intuitive and it is difficult to express. Williams (2004) suggested that the tacit lessons on projects, often overlooked, are valuable lessons and recommended the use of mapping techniques to help the project team get to the root cause of problems. A different approach is to capture the dynamics of the knowledge flow (Snider & Nissen, 2003) during the project lifecycle so as to identify key phases and activities where knowledge can be captured and exploited for future leverage.
Research has shown that knowledge transfer is an important goal for organizations, one which is not easy for organizations to accomplish (Eskerod & Skriver, 2007). In their study, Eskerod and Skriver found that the task of organizing the lessons learned by project could hinder knowledge sharing and transfer, primarily because of the silos created by those individuals who do not like to share their explicit and tacit knowledge. Similar to these findings, King and Marks (2006) found that it is difficult to measure an individual's willingness to share their knowledge resources. Project managers must be sensitive to these issues when attempting to capture lessons learned.
However, if all participants were to acquire new knowledge simply by participating in the lessons learned process; this could act as an incentive. Koners and Goffin (2005) found—in the projects they studied—that learning was not transferred from project to project; they suggested that post-project reviews be designed to stimulate learning.
Project managers should make a deliberate effort to accumulate lessons, keeping in mind the knowledge they may need to implement future projects (Bessner & Hobbs, 2006). Also, it is important to capture lessons learned on all projects, even the small and uncomplicated (Crosman 2002).
Retaining and analyzing lessons learned can reduce the risk of making the same mistakes over and over again. Cooper et al. (2002) and Love, Irani, & Edwards (2003) underscore the high cost associated with rework because the project team has not learned from past projects or simultaneous cross projects.
After lessons are captured, it is important to analyze—so as to ensure that they captured—the relevant information (Pritchard, 1997). Lessons that are captured and analyzed should be the “key project experiences which have certain general business relevance for future projects” (Schindler & Eppler, 2003, p. 200). For lessons associated with complex problems, Williams (2004) suggested using mapping techniques showing the chains of causality.
Busby (1999) recommended six other approaches to analyze lessons learned: utilizing cause-effect diagrams, paying close attention to history, examining the bigger picture outside the confines of the project, reducing categorization as a diagnosis, planning remedies, and inviting outsiders.
Often, project lessons are collected in an ad-hoc fashion in the form of documentation, presentations, word-of-mouth, narratives, diaries, and databases (Pritchard 1997). These are then analyzed for relevance and stored in a way that is easily accessible to everyone.
Devising such a storage system can be time consuming and cumbersome. Crosman (2002) recommends that organizations use a simple system with an interface that is intuitive, easy-to-use, and Web-based. Crosman also recommends that the system function as part of the project management storage system, ensuring that it is a valueadded tool prior to making it available to project managers and enforcing their compliance.
Cross project information is hard to obtain during a large project, especially when the team is battling their way through the project's day-to-day activities. Furthermore, organizations are expanding, often to the point of establishing a global presence. Regardless of an organization's size, its personnel need a knowledge storage system so as to retain the lessons they learn on all projects. This is because the process of quickly finding a relevant lesson learned is one of the key reasons for building a lessons-learned system. By using a system based on searchable keywords—also known as triggers (Crosman, 2002), organizations can find relevant lessons quickly. One important concern in operating such a system is that its access and retrieval processes are easy-to-use and easily understood (Crosman, 2002).
Capturing lessons learned has been mostly done at the end of projects, during the post-project review session. Studies have shown that project team members who work on multiple projects may not be available for the session. In such cases, organizations can use a project risk register as a useful resource for documenting risks and lessons learned. As Kerzner (2003b) believed, every risk has a potential of turning into a problem. And in the event that a risk escalates into a problem, the organization must analyze the risk. It is, therefore, critical that the lessons learned database is easy-to-use and is perceived—across the organization—as useful (King & Marks 2006).
Most organizations face the problem of accessing information that has been captured, analyzed, and stored. Kerzner (2003b) recommended that organizations store knowledge-based information—such as lessons learned and case studies—on an Intranet so as to allow easy access and enable knowledge sharing. However, this method of archiving knowledge varies because of the dynamics shaping an organization's culture and its practices.
Several studies have shown that organizations accord importance to retaining project knowledge. They may retain project knowledge on an existing project but not share this knowledge with other areas within the organization. Project amnesia, according to Schindler & Eppler (2003), occurs when a project is nearing its end and the project team returns back to their functional or line responsibilities without sharing or documenting the knowledge they acquired from working on a specific project.
Making Effective Use of Lessons Learned
As mentioned earlier, several studies suggest that lessons learned are not often used, and that in many cases, these are not used at all. In a study of 753 project managers, Besner and Hobbs (2006) found that lesson learned issues were often referenced in relation to identifying a need to improve project performance; this study found that lessons learned are often captured and never used again. Likewise, Blyth (2004) fount that the individuals working on petrochemical, defense, transportation, and nuclear projects—projects located in 40 countries—focused only on those lessons learned that related to cost management; the author also found that after the lessons learned were created, this knowledge was filed away and never shared, accessed, or disseminated.
Organizations must promote lessons learned in order for project managers to benefit and learn from other projects. Pritchard (1997) believes that retrieval of lessons learned should be tied into performance evaluations. Project managers are responsible for meeting schedule and budget expectations for their projects. Project managers should also be held accountable for any schedule and budget overruns that have occurred because the project manager failed to learn (Pritchard, 1997) from peers and from past projects.
Carillo & Chinowsky (2006), in their study of lessons learned and personal development for enhancing employee knowledge, found eight barriers to capturing and using lessons learned: lack of time, lack of management support, employee resistance to sharing, poor information technology (IT) infrastructure, stove-piping, accessibility of knowledge, not invented here syndrome, and lack of real-time integrated database.
Policies and procedures that are audited and enforced need to be part of an organization's learning culture and driven from top-down (Kerzner, 2003b). Project managers should be given a sufficient amount of time to search through a lessons learned system during the planning phase. Pritchard (1997) believed that when organizations provide rewards for using lessons learned, project managers will more likely document all of their lessons learned and ensure that they will not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Literature Review Summary
Project managers need to realize the value in lessons learned. Moreover, retaining knowledge from lessons is imperative for continuous improvement. Lessons need to be captured and shared throughout the company. Additionally, management needs to support and enforce the use of lessons within the learning environment.
Using the survey created by Williams (2007) as the base information, we developed a questionnaire that was tailormade to meet our research purpose. The questionnaire mainly consisted of sections addressing issues to determine how organizations use lessons learned, how the respondents felt about the existing methods employed to capture lessons learned, what the respondents considered their best method for capturing lessons learned, and what deters them from putting more effort into capturing lessons learned. The survey was created using a Web-based survey tool.
A total 45 project management professionals participated in the study of which 32 respondents represented a large international company. Other participants represented various organizations both in the public and private organizations. Additionally, interviews were also conducted where needed.
Analysis and Discussion
Interviews and surveys show that project managers believe lessons learned should be done on projects. Everyone who responded to the survey felt that they could learn from the past project successes and failures. However, only 60% of the respondents said lessons learned are used only sometimes. Eighty-four percent of the respondents indicated the lessons learned are performed at the end of the project. Based on our research results, we have identified the top five reasons for not developing lessons learned (Table 1).
Table 1: Top reasons for not completing lessons learned
|Reason||Explanation||% of surveyed respondents|
|Lack of time||Project resources are not given the time to complete lessons learned.||84%|
|Lack of resources||Once the resource had finished the project tasks, they moved on to other work or projects.||69%|
|Lack of clear guidelines||Company processes and procedures are not well defined or enforced.||60%|
|Lack of incentive||Although much effort goes into meetings, documentation, and reporting of lessons learned, the project resources are not recognized for their efforts.||44%|
|Lack of management support||Functional managers & management do not see the benefit of lessons learned and do not support efforts allowing their employees to participate in lessons learned meetings and forums.||40%|
The first reason found was lack of employee time. Our discussions with the respondents suggest that towards the project completion time, project team members were assigned to other projects or no longer working at the company. The second reason—lack of resources—is a contributing factor to lack of employee time and these are clearly related. Majority of the respondents (31 out of 45) said lack of resources hinders completing lessons learned. The key resources are released from the project or no longer working for the company. The project team members are assigned back to their functional managers.
When asked about details that contribute to lack of clear guidelines, respondents indicated that processes are not in place for running lessons learned meetings, gaining the needed knowledge, or enforcing compliance. Absence of such guidelines is related to lack of management support for managing the lessons learned process.
Lack of incentive can also be seen as lack of motivation that prevents project managers from completing lessons learned. Project managers will have to spend many hours initiating and coordinating the meetings, which are necessary to assemble all the key stakeholders of the project to collect and document information related to lessons learned, only to have it archived and never looked at again. All the effort that leads to generating valuable information becomes futile. Non-use of lessons learned acts as disincentive and results in discouraging all those who participated in this time-consuming task of generating lessons learned.
Lack of management support translates into failure on the part of management to see the value in lessons learned. As a consequence, management does not enforce or support the process of capturing of lessons learned and its contributing value for future projects. Lack of management support was also noted in a few other responses to the survey questionnaire.
While the first two factors are rooted in the same management action, the rest are the consequences of lack of support on the part of senior management towards lessons learned. Assigning resources to another project immediately after completing a project reflects efficient use of resources but does not reflect effective use of resources.
Reason to Challenge the Way We Do Lessons Learned
As noted in the literature review, some companies that do complete lessons learned at the end of projects typically archive information and store it with the rest of the project documentation to never be seen again. The survey confirms that 89% of lessons learned are captured at the end of projects whereas only 31% of the respondents indicated that their organization has a database or system to store lessons learned information to be used in the future. These results can be compared to another study which showed that 44% of the respondents had some way to apply lessons learned in the planning of future projects.
Organizations repeat the same mistakes over and over again and Schindler & Eppler (2003) coined the term project amnesia for this purpose. Project amnesia is when companies forget, as they move from project to project, about their past successes and failures. How do companies stop forgetting about the past and become a learning environment? Retaining project knowledge is not a simple task.
Surveyed project management professionals indicated they were able to avoid scope change, schedule change, and resource issues by utilizing lessons from the past projects. Additionally, a majority of the respondents were able to create better estimates after learning from past successes and failures
Recommendations and Best Practices for Implementing Lessons Learned
Through a cycle of continuous learning, an organization can create a culture of successful projects. To avoid making mistakes over and over again and reinventing the wheel every time you start a project, project managers and project management offices should use a 5-step continuous process for capturing knowledge throughout the life of the project (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Lessons learned cycle
Twenty-four (out of 45) respondents agree that data collection should occur after each project phase and after the project's completion. However, approximately 87% percent of the respondents completed lessons learned activities only at the end of the project in a post-project review. Moreover, according to the surveyed respondents, lessons learned activities occur on large projects, a few other projects, or not at all.
Capturing lessons learned successfully at each milestone and at the project completion can provide valuable information for future projects. However, only 3 respondents indicated that lessons learned were captured throughout the project lifecycle.
Two out of three (66%) respondents said there is no formal lessons learned process. Many organizations represented in the survey are focused on quality and process improvements associated with capturing lessons learned.
Organizations typically do not have a resource associated with supporting learning from projects. As identified by the survey, 16% of the respondents stated that a person in their organization was responsible for the capture, transfer, audit, and compliance of lessons learned. However, forty-five percent thought it would be useful to have someone capture lessons that are external to project and 40% thought a resource external to the organization would be useful in performing lessons learned during the project.
Figure 2: Capturing Lessons
Meetings and individual interviews has been identified as the main way the respondents capture lessons learned activities. Seventy percent of the surveyed respondents hold meetings or workshops as a means of collecting lessons learned. The surveyed respondents also conduct regular audits (71%), personal interviews (53%), public forum (34%), diaries (50%), and learning histories (48%) (See Figure 2).
Project managers should be prepared for collecting lessons learned by creating an agenda. It is imperative to choose the right people to attend the lesson-learned meeting. The respondents have identified project management team members, technical group, and customers as the main people involved in lessons learned activities. As identified in the literature review findings, project managers need to make sure all the key stakeholders participate in the lessons learned process.
By using milestones and important phases throughout the project life cycle, project managers have a better chance of capturing all the important information and can ensure better participation in the learning process. If they wait until the end of the project, most of the key stakeholders may not be available to share the information. Additionally, the lessons are fresh in the mind if they perform lessons learned process throughout the entire project life cycle.
Ground rules are imperative when running the lessons learned meeting without which it will end up being a complaint session and nothing will be accomplished. Our research results (51%) have shown that people are willing to share their knowledge about the project. Thus, participation is not an issue. By beginning the meeting with documenting showing what was done right in the project, project managers can encourage participants to join the discussion. The project manager should remember to address issues covering such aspects as business and technical activities. Blaming individuals will discourage people from participating in the process (46%).
Eighty-six percent of the survey respondents believe using a formal lessons learned process is important. Project managers must, therefore, encourage project members to participate. Finally, project auditors need to look for lessons learned documentation and act accordingly if the documentation is missing.
It is important to ensure the right people are available during the project lessons learned data collection process. The surveyed respondents use several methods of data collection for gathering lessons learned on projects. Collecting lessons throughout the life cycle will help project managers make sure that the available resources have the time to participate in the collection of lessons learned during that phase of the project. It will also ensure that participants share their lessons learned while the knowledge is fresh in their minds. To implement the next step, project managers must ensure that they possess enough of the essential data that they need capture.
Analyze and Verify Data
Without knowing what the actual problem is, we cannot identify the root cause of the problem. Only half of the respondents felt they could get to the root cause of the issues on their projects.
A majority of the respondents said the lessons you learn are complex. Additionally, the respondents felt they were able to generalize the lessons for use on other projects. The respondents also felt the lessons captured were valuable and useful knowledge rather than just collecting data. Finally, the survey research shows that 66% of the respondents felt they were able to clearly define the issues; and 69% felt that they could prioritize the issues.
Project managers analyze data to reduce the risk of making the same mistakes over and over again. The surveyed project managers found that complex problems were important to gather and document but that it was sometimes difficult to find the initial problem or root cause. Analyzing and verifying data is important to make sure the captured information is retained in a method that can be understood and used. The lessons need to be clearly defined prior to the next step of storing the data.
Sixty-nine percent of the respondents agreed the project team and the members outside the team learn about the lessons. However, 46% thought lessons did not transmit throughout the organization. Respondents indicated the need for a repository of lessons learned that is easy to search and use.
Figure 3: Storage of lessons learned
When looking for a company-wide storage solution, it is important to solicit information from all types of users to ensure the solution will be used. Ninety-one percent of the respondents thought the organization needs to store lessons learned in a well-indexed database. The respondent identified four other storage systems: construct learning history (62%), learning networks (85%), and having one person (56%) or a department (36%) responsible for the lessons learned. As identified by one respondent, the storage systems must be easy to use and provide them value. As noted in the literature review, if the system is perceived as not being helpful or useful, then people will not see the value in using it.
Majority of the survey respondents (55%) thought it was important to train individuals on how to retrieve and tailor lessons learned. Another 52% thought it was useful but not necessary to have a specific department responsible for retrieving lessons learned.
In storing the data it is imperative that the data may be obtained by anyone in the organization. The surveyed respondents indicate that many methods can be used to store the data. The survey shows that entering the data in a way that it can be successfully retrieved is important. This leads to the next step of disseminating the data to the people that need it in a timely manner.
Sixty-nine percent of the respondents do not feel lessons are transferred beyond the individual on the project team. About 50% of the respondents indicated lessons are transferred beyond the project team and across cultures.
The respondents identified that once the lessons have been captured, only individuals who moved out of the team, or those who mentor others, have disseminated the content to people outside of the project team. Over half of the respondents feel lessons learned are meaningful only after they are incorporated into the organization processes. In some cases, organizational strategies have changed because of lessons learned.
The respondents clearly indicate that lessons are learned by the project team. The lessons are not disseminated once the lesson moves out into other departments, business units, and the organization. This step focuses on getting the data to the people who need it. The data needs to be available and easily accessible in order to get to the next step of making effective use of the data.
Making Effective Use of Data
Everyone who participated in the study agreed that they could learn from another project manager's successes and failures. However, a majority of the surveyed respondents said they currently have no—or no easy way—to access lessons from previous projects. Only one in five respondents indicated that using lessons learned helped them learn, from the past projects, how to avoid changes in scope and schedule.
Most respondents agree that knowledge is gained from past project lessons. The surveyed project management professionals agreed that the lessons made them more successful. Most of the respondents agreed that organizational and individual knowledge have increased by using lessons learned.
How do we bypass the barriers noted above and enforce making effective use of lessons learned on projects? Ninety-four percent of the respondents felt that the learning processes were not measured for effectiveness and 88% agreed that they do not benchmark learning processes. From this, we may conclude that since the project manager's performance is not measured using lessons learned, they will not go through the effort of conducting lessons learned activities—even though they know they have benefited from practicing lessons learned in the past. Only four respondents thought learning processes were benchmarked against similar projects within the organization.
Conclusions and Future Direction
SoftMax's experience is not uncommon for organizations. Organizations need to see the value of—and completely support efforts in—creating a learning environment. Making this cultural change will allow them to break through learning barriers that have been created over time. Projects managers need to move from the old days of completing lessons at the end of the project. Lessons learned need to be completed during each life cycle phase of the project while this knowledge is fresh in the mind of their resources—and while project managers have their resources available to them. Instead of archiving the data, project managers must collect, analyze, store, and disseminate this knowledge so that they effectively use their project team's lessons learned.
All respondents surveyed agreed that they can learn from other project manager's past successes and failures. By quickly and easily getting to the informative lessons learned, especially during a project's inception, project managers can improve their ability to plan, schedule, and estimate their future projects. To do so, project managers need to understand the project problem, use the relevant lesson learned, and adapt their project plan accordingly. By making effective use of the lessons already learned early in the project, project managers can minimize the risk of running into the same issues that past projects had, regardless of the studied project's outcome. Project managers can learn from both successful and unsuccessful projects. This continuous learning cycle moves the company into a new learning environment.
The new learning environment needs to be fully endorsed throughout the company and sponsored by executive management. The company should address the top reasons for not completing lessons learned and adopt the five-step lessons-learned continuous life cycle process. To start, organizations need to create clear guidelines, processes, and procedures. This should include human resources-related activities, such as incentives for performing the five-step process as well as information on audits and disciplinary actions.
By adopting this five-step process, project managers can overcome both management and project resource concerns by gathering the lessons learned during project milestones, when the project team members have the necessary resources and time to capture lessons learned. Additionally, project managers must overcome project learning barriers in order to retain project knowledge. Retaining project knowledge and establishing a continuous improvement effort are vital activities for companies to perform so that they remain competitive. Knowing how lessons are learned, and by using the five-step continuous process for capturing learning, companies can create a learning environment.
Organizations are now competing in global economies. Because of this, marketplace competition is fierce. Organizations use projects to keep costs low, schedules on time, and activities closely monitored. Project mistakes and rework are costly. Organizations can benefit by using the five-step model, which will enable them to avoid the risks involved in reworking projects and in repeating the same mistakes or problems continuously. Additionally, by learning from historical projects, project managers can prevent scope changes, schedule changes, and resource issues. Implementing the five-step model involves a paradigm shift from collecting and archiving lessons (where they are not looked at again) to turning a company into a learning environment (where lessons are learned, collected, analyzed, stored, and disseminated to make effective use of the lessons). Process and procedures are implemented to make sure that the lessons are used or that the project manager is held accountable for a lesson that was learned in a historical project.
Future research is needed in the areas of knowledge management systems and soliciting management support. Creating knowledge management systems that can be used easily to enter and retrieve lessons learned in storing, disseminating, and making effective use of lessons learned is vital. Finally, gathering information discerning about why management does not support lessons learned activities may provide additional insight into the reasons why companies often fail to implement the lessons learned activities which could establish a learning organization.
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