Applying lessons learned
Is your organization learning from previous projects? Is your organization benefiting from the lessons learned? A vast amount of learning takes place on every project. With increased project complexity, and constant project manager and team member turnover, subject matter expertise is not always readily available. Experienced project managers know the importance of capturing lessons learned, and often do so. But how is the organization using those lessons from previous projects? Even organizations that routinely capture lessons learned sometimes fall short when it comes to analyzing the lessons and then applying them to existing and future projects. The real value obtained from lessons learned is the ability for the organization to establish and sustain a culture of consistent project management improvement.
Are you learning from project to project? How do you know? As a project manager, you may be able to measure your growth from one project to the next, but are you sharing your knowledge with others? Is your organization benefiting from this knowledge? Organizations are becoming more project-focused with defined, even mature, processes for initiating, planning, monitoring, executing and controlling activities. These same organizations have processes for project closure, which may even include conducting a lessons-learned session at the end of the project. Depending on the availability of the project team members and urgency of the next project assignment, lessons-learned activities may or may not get conducted. Even if the lessons-learned session does occur, capturing lessons learned alone does not provide the organization with the real benefits; the real value is in the actual use of the lessons learned. It is in analyzing the lessons for root causes and then applying the lessons to current and future projects that the organizations are able to learn from project to project. This paper explores a lessons-learned methodology with emphasis-placed suggestions for applying the lessons learned. It also identifies what is required in addition to a process for the organization to establish and sustain a culture of consistent project management improvement.
Lessons Learned Overview
Lessons learned is the learning gained from the process of performing the project (Project Management Institute, 2004, p. 363). We learn from our own project experiences as well from as the experiences of others. Sharing lessons learned among project team members prevents an organization from repeating the same mistakes and also allows them to take advantage of organizational best practices. Learning should be deliberate. Organizations should be prepared to take advantage of the key learning opportunities that projects provide. Too often capturing lessons learned is seen as optional, if time permits.
To maximize learning from project to project, organizations should have an infrastructure in place to acquire and socialize project information—a lessons-learned process. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) defines a process as a set of interrelated actions and activities performed to achieve a specified set of products results or services (Project Management Institute, 2004, p. 367). The purpose of a lessons-learned process is to define the activities required to successfully capture and apply lessons learned. Often organizations have a defined process for capturing lessons but do not include activities to ensure lessons are used. The lessons learned process shown in Exhibit 1 is a comprehensive approach to ensure that lessons are applied and includes five activities: identify, document, analyze, store and retrieve. This process can be summarized into two main parts: capturing and applying lessons learned. Capturing lessons learned includes the first two activities: identify and document, and applying lessons learned includes the last three activities: analyze, store and retrieve. The more discipline and effort you place in capturing lessons, the more prepared you are to apply the lessons learned. With that being said, let's first look at some suggestions for capturing lessons learned.
Exhibit 1 – Lessons Learned Process
Capturing Lessons Learned
Capturing lessons learned contains two process groups: identify and document. Lessons should be captured for all projects, large and small. The process and tools are scalable and if used consistently, provide the data necessary for reporting, analysis and comparison among similar projects.
Identify Lessons Learned
Identify comments and recommendations that could be valuable for future projects.
It is not necessary to wait until the end of the project to capture lessons. The criticality and complexity of the project can indicate other times to begin capturing lessons. Some key times are at the end of a wave, phase or stage and real time—when you learn the lesson. If you wait until the end of a large project, you miss some of the key lessons. Because of the time that has elapsed, project team members may forget some of the things they learned, or team members assigned to the project in the early phases may no longer be part of the project during the later phases. A facilitated session with the appropriate facilitation tools provides more structure and allows the team to identify more relevant lessons.
The project evaluation/questionnaire is an excellent facilitation tool that can help the facilitator as well as the participant to prepare for the session. The project evaluation and project questionnaire can be used separately or in combination for maximum effect. The evaluation provides the team with a list of questions about project activities. These questions have scores that range from low to high which allows the participants to quantitatively identify what went well and what did not. The project evaluation should be organized by category. The use of categories will ensure key information is not missed and will later help to focus the discussion. Categories can be defined by project management knowledge area, project development phases, business process or a combination. Categories can be high-level or divided into subcategories, depending on the needs of the project. On the other hand, the questionnaire provides open-ended questions. The facilitator can begin with a standard list of questions and adjust the list by adding questions specific to the project. Three questions that should always be included on the questionnaire follow: (1) what went right, (2) what went wrong, and (3) what needs to be improved.
The facilitator should have the participants complete the evaluation/questionnaire in advance. These responses will be used by the facilitator to guide the discussion during the session. The project evaluation/questionnaire will help the participants to be better prepared to respond during the session and will also give them the opportunity to provide input if they are unable to attend. Another benefit of the evaluation/questionnaire is that it will allow the participants to identify sensitive items that need to be discussed during the session.
A lessons-learned session focuses on identifying project successes and failures and includes recommendations to improve future performance on projects. Project managers have a professional obligation to conduct lessons-learned sessions for all projects with key internal and external stakeholders, particularly if the project yielded less than desirable results (Project Management Institute, 2004, p. 230). The lessons-learned session is a key component of the lessons-learned process. If the session is not successful, then the organization loses out on the lessons-learned opportunity.
The facilitator should focus on the lessons-learned process and guide the participants during the session. To obtain optimum results, the lessons-learned sessions should be facilitated by someone other than the project manager. The project manager's closeness to the project may cause a bias in obtaining a fair review. Also, the project manager needs to participate and provide content in key areas. The facilitator should prepare in advance. Basic preparation includes identifying participants; reviewing key project documents and project questionnaire results, preparing a list of questions specific to the project and choosing the appropriate facilitation tools. At the beginning of the session, the facilitator should review the agenda with the participants; define and assign roles and responsibilities, such as scribe and timekeeper; gain acceptance on ground rules; and explain the process and activities. Facilitated brainstorming should occur during the session. The facilitator should ensure that all the relevant items are included in the discussion and that the lessons-learned process is followed. Participants should be encouraged to criticize the process and should be instructed to never criticize the people. This should not become a finger-pointing session. Separate sessions can also be held for management and project team members. For large teams, a subset of the team should be selected; however, it is best to include team members who have been part of the team status meetings.
Lessons can be documented in real time—when they occur. Team members can keep lessons in a tickler file and then share them with the team during the lessons-learned session. If a lesson is critical, it should be discussed when it is learned. This lesson can be an agenda item for a regularly scheduled status meeting, or a special meeting can be called for the sole purpose of discussing this lesson. This lesson should also be reviewed during the lessons-learned session so that it can be included in the lessons-learned reports for the project.
Document Lessons Learned
Document and share project findings.
After lessons learned are captured, they should be reported to project stakeholders. Different types of reports should be produced, based on the audience. Some lessons may have to be restricted to specific reports because of their sensitive nature.
- Detailed Report – The detailed lessons-learned report consists of the data captured during the lessons-learned session and any additional input from participants who were not able to attend. The facilitator should distribute the detailed lessons-learned report to all participants, and participants should be given time to respond to the accuracy of the report. After the report is finalized, the project team should receive a copy.
- Summary – This is a one-page brief for leadership summarizing the findings and providing recommendations for correcting the findings.
- Executive Report – This report should present an overview of the lessons-learned process and a summary of project strengths: what went well, project weaknesses; what went wrong and recommendations; what we need to improve. Specifics can also be included by category. The detailed report can be included as an attachment or made available in the event leadership needs more information.
- Findings – This is a summary of the issues found during the review process.
- Recommendations – Recommendations are actions to be taken to correct findings. The approved actions should be documented and tracked to completion. In some cases, the approved action may become a project due to high level of resources required to address the finding.
The facilitator can present summarized reports to executives and more detailed reports to the project manager and project team. Lessons learned can also be shared with other project teams during learning sessions. Project successes can be shared through newsletter articles, white papers or other communication vehicles. The project manager should store lessons-learned reports with the other project documentation.
Project-specific data should be fed into management–level, lessons-learned metrics reports. It is important to include both successful and failed projects in order to obtain meaningful metrics. Metrics serve as indicators of project management maturity and enable the organization to identity important events and trends. Metrics can help project professionals separate problems from opportunities (Rad & Levin, 2002, p. 103) and can also indicate if you are learning from project to project. The metrics report should include numbers, ratings, ranks or colours to indicate project performance.
Applying Lessons Learned
Applying lessons learned contains three process groups: analyze, store and retrieve. Now that the organization is identifying and documenting lessons, it is important to apply them to existing and future projects. Applying lessons learned is necessary in establishing and sustaining a culture of consistent project management improvement.
Analyze Lessons Learned
Analyze and organize lessons learned for application of results.
A root-cause analysis should be conducted for each project after the lessons have been captured. This will give the organization a better understanding of what can be improved. A Root Cause Analysis is a technique used to identify the underlying reason or condition that causes the occurrence of an undesired activity or state. The objective is to identify reoccurring problems in late or failed projects. Once the root causes are identified, steps to eliminate them can be determined. The analysis should provide true causes, not symptoms. To conduct the root cause analysis, the team should begin by using the Findings report, or a list of the things that went wrong. For each item on the list, the team should determine if it was a cause or an effect. For each cause, the team should further analyze the train of causes by asking, “Why, why, why” until the root cause is determined. After the root cause has been identified, it should be documented for followup. All root causes should appear on a consolidated prioritized list and then assigned to a resource or team to develop a solution. The person or team responsible for developing the solution should be located at a level within the organization that will enable the person or team to implement the solution. Many organizations have charged a program or project management office with this responsibility. In the beginning you may notice that many of the lessons learned generated the same root cause. Solutions are often in the form of process improvements or training programs. As solutions are implemented, the earlier root causes may no longer appear and new root causes will begin to appear.
If process improvement is the solution, then new processes or procedures may have to be developed, or existing processes or procedures may have to retired or revised. Remember to engage the process owner in process improvement discussions so that changes can get implemented across the organization and all of the supporting documentation can get updated. Process improvements are handled more efficiently if the organization has a process in place to communicate process changes.
In some cases, processes and procedures may exist but the team lacks understanding on how to use them. In this situation, refresher training would be the solution. Training programs should be in place for processes, procedures and tools and revised to accommodate process improvements. Additional programs may be required for leadership development, team development or business knowledge training. Lessons learned can be used to create training examples, exercises and case studies, which will make training programs more effective and the learning more valuable.
In addition to root causes, the analysis team should also identify best practices so that they can be incorporated into existing methodologies, processes, procedures and training programs. The analysis team should also look at risks. Business risks should be communicated to the project sponsor, and project risks should be reviewed to determine if there is something that can be done to actively address risk mitigation at the organizational level.
Store Lessons Learned
Store lessons learned in a project repository.
The use of a lessons-learned repository will allow the teams to access lessons for future use. However, in order to easily access these lessons, the information has to be stored in a manner that is easily retrievable. Consistency of input information allows for speedier identification of reoccurring issues and proactive resolutions. The lessons-learned input form is a key tool. This document allows for more consistent data collection, as well as provides a means for easier retrieval. The lessons-learned template should include previously agreed-to fields such as category, lesson learned, action taken, how did you arrive at the action taken, root cause and key words. Key words should always be identified. They are ultimately one of the determinants of success in utilizing lessons learned (Prichard, 1997, p. 94) and are essential for easy retrieval. The data on the lessons-learned input form is transferred to the organization's lessons learned repository. The lessons-learned input form can also be shared with the project team during the lessons-learned session. As a team member identifies a lesson that needs to be included in the repository, the necessary information can be captured while the team member is available.
There should be a resource assigned to manage the lessons-learned repository. This person would be responsible for ensuring that the required information is obtained and loaded in the lessons-learned repository. In order to keep the repository manageable, as lessons outlive their usefulness, they should be purged. The tool selected to store the lessons should be accessible across the organization, and also should be easy to use. Documentation and training should be available for new users. Project managers should be responsible for making sure their lessons learned are included in the repository.
Retrieve Lessons Learned
Retrieve lessons learned for use on current projects.
The last but certainly not least activity is to retrieve lessons learned. By having a lessons-learned repository with key-word search capability, the project manager can retrieve lessons learned and review them prior to starting a new project. Two things can occur with these lessons. One, the project manager can meet with project leadership and discuss the project approach that includes lessons learned from previous projects, and the project manager can make discussing lessons learned from previous projects an agenda item during the kick-off meeting.
Second, during the risk-planning sessions, the project manager can use information from previous projects as a means for identifying project risks and developing mitigation strategies.
Make It Happen
The project manager is responsible for making sure lessons learned happen. Capturing lessons learned should be an ongoing effort throughout the life of the project. This mindset should be strongly encouraged by the project manager at the beginning of the project. The project manager should begin each project by reviewing lessons learned from previous projects and encouraging team participation in future lessons-learned activities. Lessons should be identified and documented with the expectation that they will be used to help other project teams. The project manager should build learning opportunities into the project. Tasks should be included in the project schedule, along with their expected deliverables. The team should be on the lookout for best practices and areas for improvement and communicate them for process improvements.
As the project manager, you can make a difference. If the organization does not have a lessons-learned process in place, or does not insist on all projects adhering to the lessons-learned process, then you as the project manager should insist within your domain of responsibility, on your projects, that the lessons-learned activities occur. Treat each project as a learning experience and share your knowledge with your organization. As you apply the lessons, credibility for the process will increase. More team members will be willing to share their lessons learned if they know that their lessons learned will be used to initiate change.
Character Qualities for Lessons-Learned Success
In order for learning to occur, the project manager must lead the effort. To lead is to go before, or with, and show others the way. It is to guide in direction, course, action and opinion. Effective leadership is grounded in good character. Character defines the person. Your character determines who you are. Who you are determines what you see. What you see determines what you do (Maxwell, 1999, p. 4). Your team should see you as one who promotes learning, makes time for learning and embraces the changes resulting from the lessons learned.
Some key character qualities for lessons learned success follow:
- Accountability – Assuming responsibility for the learning and applying the lessons learned.
- Availability – Making your schedule and priorities include lessons-learned activities.
- Determination – Intending to conduct lessons learned-activities throughout the project. Persisting in investigation until full understanding is achieved.
- Diligence – Investing time and energy to fully understand the root causes of project problems.
- Flexibility – Being able to change to a culture where you are applying lessons learned and being able to make the changes quickly.
- Focus – Paying attention to the relevant information under consideration, prioritizing activities and concentrating on the details.
- Integrity – Adhering to moral and ethical principles and providing accurate information on project activities.
- Respect – Showing regard or consideration for a person or position.
- Responsibility – Knowing and doing what is expected.
- Self-control – Rejecting wrong desires and doing what is right. Allowing all project team members the opportunity to speak on behalf of the project, even if you do not like what is being said.
- Transparency – Being completely open and honest.
- Truthfulness – Earning future trust by accurately reporting past facts.
Character is the inward motivation to do what is right in every situation. It is important that the project manager exhibit the behaviors that support learning. Successful socialization of project information is dependent upon the project manager's interaction with the project team. Leading the project team in the right direction, and in the right way, is just one more way the project manager can make lessons learned happen.
Lessons Learned Best Practices
A best practice is something that has been found to work over time. Following is a list of standard lessons-learned best practices:
- Review lessons learned from previous projects at the beginning of your project.
- Conduct lessons-learned sessions at various times throughout the life of your project.
- Have someone other than the project manager facilitate the lessons-learned session.
- Ask focused open-ended questions during the lessons-learned session.
- Allow time for real-time lessons.
- Use templates to allow for consistency.
- Perform a root-cause analysis on project problems and engage the appropriate resources to implement solutions.
- Store lessons in a repository that has key-word search capability.
- Use lessons learned during risk planning.
- Have leadership involvement.
The questions I asked at the beginning of this paper still remain. Are you learning from project to project? Are you sharing your knowledge with others? Is your organization benefiting from this knowledge? Again I must say, a vast amount of learning takes place on every project. With increased project complexity, and constant project manager and team member turnover, subject matter expertise is not always readily available. By not learning from project failures, we are doomed to repeat similar situations. By not maximizing on project successes, we miss opportunities to implement good processes and practices to successfully complete existing and future work. The real value obtained from lessons learned is the ability for the organization to establish and sustain a culture of consistent project management improvement. Organizations must use projects as learning experiences. We must all learn to learn from project to project. We must understand the root causes for project delays and failures and then become part of the solution. This proactive mindset will allow us to drive a change from just capturing lessons learned to actually applying lessons learned. And, finally, we must have senior-level management to fully institutionalize the process of applying lessons learned across the organization.
Maxwell, J. (1999). The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Pritchard, Carl L. (1997, September). Lessons Learned in the Twenty-frst century: Haven't we been here before? PMI Annual Seminars & Symposium 1997, Chicago, IL.
Rad, Parviz F., & Levin, Ginger. (2002). The advanced project management office. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press LLC.
©2008, Sandra F. Rowe
Originally published as part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Sydney, Australia