Project Management Institute

Gathering and using lessons learned

by Adrian Abramovici, PMP

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IN THE MIDDLE OF a busy project we have our hands full fighting fires, planning the next phase, keeping the customer happy, staying ahead of the dreaded risks, keeping the subcontractors in line, and so forth. No time to sit down and recapitulate, to step back and take a hard look at what we have done, what went right and what went wrong. Then the project is over, and the next one is starting up, so we rush to put the new team together, plan and start the work, keep the customer happy.

The past is a great teacher, providing knowledge and wisdom to guide us to a successful future.

Right? Wrong!

We must find the time to step back and look at the big picture, to collect, understand and act upon “Lessons Learned.” Lessons, together with metrics, are the best indices allowing us to monitor the heartbeat of the business and make adjustments to improve it. Lessons are a risk mitigation tool as well as a training and planning tool.

Some seasoned managers have told me that lessons are learned through the accumulated experience of the management and employees, and therefore no formal process is required. 1 disagree, with the exception, maybe, of small, single-project companies where just about everyone works with everyone else all the time. 1t is true that experience is based on the lessons we learn, the day-today successes and failures. But once a company grows, separate teams experience different environments, and the cross-fertilization common for small, single-project companies is gone. A company is much more than groups of individuals and their experiences, and the learning must be shared to obtain the greatest benefits. Compare this to scientific research, and imagine a team of researchers working in total isolation from any other teams and colleagues elsewhere, while the other teams communicate and share information freely. Which team do you think will do best? Well, by a stroke of luck the isolationists might just discover the “Next Big Thing,” but 1 wouldn't bet on them.


Adrian Abramovid, director of product assurance for Spar Aerospace, manufacturers of space robotic systems such as the space shuttle's Canadarm and the new robotic systems for the International Space Station, has six years of project and program management experience at increasing levels of responsibility.

Lessons learned, if properly used, allow quick and timely dissemination of business experience throughout a company, allow for adjustments made to improve performance on existing or upcoming projects, and create a database of knowledge to use in similar future projects.

Why Do We Need Lessons Learned?

Lessons learned are among the more important ways through which a company gathers information on how well it is performing its business projects. Lessons should be gathered for all business projects, major and minor. The term project is used here to describe any business activity of a significant size, “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service” (the Project Management Institute's definition). Program/project phases, marketing bids (successful or unsuccessful), business reengineering tasks, subcontract negotiations or management phases, even repetitive major tasks such as yearly budget plan definition—all these and more will benefit by having lessons collected, publicized, and learned.

How Should Lessons Learned Be Gathered? Have Brainstorming Sessions. Lessons should be gathered at both management and nonmanagement levels in open and facilitated brain-storming sessions. The project's managers or leads should never be allowed to lead the lessons learned session for their area of responsibility, lest they steer the discussion based on their personal views, which might not be impartial enough. 1t is recommended that the facilitators be trained in guiding such sessions and that they use predefined checklists of subjects, steering the discussion to ensure all relevant data is gathered and that results from similar lessons can be compared.

For projects performed by large groups, with a number of managers and large numbers of other personnel, separate sessions for management and nonmanagement should be held because most employees will not point out project management issues and problems with their manager in the room, especially if that manager will continue to be their manager for the next phase.


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If the number of employees is large, a smaller group should be selected, with representatives of all areas of work and various levels of expertise to ensure all views are represented.

Look at Both Sides of the Coin. 1t is human to complain, so in most such meetings people will tend to concentrate on the negative, on the things that have gone wrong. The facilitators should try to steer the discussion toward capturing both good and bad lessons, as we can learn from both.

Elicit Solutions, Not Just Complaints. Another important objective that needs to be emphasized in the lessons sessions is that we are not just compiling a list of good and bad things that happened, but that we are also looking for suggested solutions and ways to improve. The facilitators should, after having established lists of good and bad characteristics of the project phase being discussed, elicit solutions for improving the project in the next phase (or for the next project).

Who Should Be Made Aware of Lessons Learned?

Some companies hide the results of lessons-learned sessions as “Company Secrets.” This is a mistake. The lessons will only be learned if they are publicized and if people are encouraged (and sometimes mandated) to read and act upon them.

Upon completing the brainstorming sessions, facilitators should compile their findings using predefined formats, with the goal of facilitating comparison of lessons learned from similar projects. The compilations should carefully avoid “manipulating” the data. Data should be edited only for clarity and to fit within a template, but no softening, watering down of findings should be allowed.

The template should achieve two goals: group data by areas of interest and in a standard format that allows comparison with other similar projects, and segregate data by target audiences. Some parts of the lessons will be of interest to all the employees, while others only to specific groups (e.g., finance). Other parts will have to be restricted to specific small groups of users because of their sensitive nature (e.g., data related to customers, contractors, marketing strategies, specific individuals identified by name). A balance between wide distribution and tight control of lessons-learned information must be found, allowing as many people as possible to have access to the data while still controlling potentially damaging information.

Lessons learned should be maintained on a database or on the company intranet, with access to their various parts given in accordance with the type of data they contain. An easy-to-navigate index should be provided, allowing easy identification of all lessons gathered for any given type of task and its various phases.

How Should Lessons Learned Be Used?

On New Projects. For every new project, the team being assembled to perform it should be required to review all available lessons pertaining to the task directly (e.g., same type of project) or indirectly (e.g., different type of project, same customer).

The requirements on team management should be more stringent. The team management should be encouraged not just to read the related lessons, but also to prove to the company executives that they have read them, by being required to present a plan showing how the existing lessons will be applied to their task. At the project's own lessons session (e.g., following completion of its first phase), the performance of the task management against this plan should be reviewed.

During Multiphase Projects. For a multiphase project, the project team and management should be required to review the lessons resulting from their previous phase, and to act upon them by continuing whatever they did right and correcting things they did wrong. During the periodic project reviews with the company executives, the project manager should present the progress status on the lessons implementation plan, as seen from his or her perspective.

As an Input to Risk Management Activities. Lessons should be integrated with the risk management effort, as one of the tools used to identify risk areas as well as ways to mitigate them.

As an Input to Training Plans. Another area that should look at the lessons-learned inputs is training planning, as in many cases the lessons will highlight deficiencies that can be fixed through appropriate training programs.

As Part of the Continuous Improvement Process. Lessons collected are an invaluable source of feedback for the continuous improvement process. Targets for improvement in existing processes and procedures are usually identified, as well as potential new process needs, process tailoring requirements, and so on. The lessons-learned process should be made an integral part of every company's processes maintenance activities.

AS INDIVIDUALS, we are learning new lessons every day, and we are promptly incorporating them into our daily behavior. There is no reason for companies to behave differently from the individuals who make them up. But for companies to “learn,” a process needs to be set up to gather, process and disseminate the accumulated lessons. 1f properly set up and implemented consistently within a company, lessons learned can turn into very valuable tools. 1t is worth taking the time to gather them in. images


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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

October 1999 PM Network

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