Sustainability vs. amnesia: From lessons logged to lessons learned


Introduction to Organizational Maturity and Continuous Improvement: The Aims of Lessons Learned

The higher level to be demonstrated in organizational maturity in most of the models measuring that maturity is achieved through continuous improvement. The idea of continuous improvement impacts the products that are delivered, of course, but also the process in place, as shown in Exhibit 1.

Different Levels of Maturity According to the CMM Model

Exhibit 1: Different Levels of Maturity According to the CMM Model

This ability to improve those processes can usually be achieved through a learning process based on the ability to recycle information and use objective analysis of mistakes and errors made during the application of the project management processes. It also implies being able to re-use historical data from past and parallel projects. This is where, operationally, things start to become difficult.

What do we mean by lessons learned?

Usually, the concept of lessons learned is defined as “the knowledge gained during a project which shows how project events were addressed or should be addressed in the future for the purpose of improving future performance” as noted in the lexicon included in the PMBOK® Guide and Standards (Project Management Institute, 2014).

The usual aim of lessons learned is to introduce an improvement, changing an unsatisfactory situation most of the time. Lessons learned, then, is a trigger for change.

Change has at least two characteristics:

  1. It needs to be supported at the organizational level.
  2. The ability of an organization to absorb change is limited due to the simple delay necessary to exploit the outcomes of the implementation of a change and transform them into benefits and new capabilities for the organization.

Yes, lessons learned produces outcomes, which have to be introduced and not only at the project level. These outcomes also have to introduce changes by developing new capabilities for the organization to improve their working and operational processes.

Better is often the enemy of good….

Many organizations put knowledge management processes, initiatives, or procedures in place. That might seem like a good idea indeed. But a lot of them fail in developing these initiatives. The main reason for that lies in a scope that is too large. They want to cover a wide spread of areas and generalize the capitalization of data and systematic recycling of those.

Very often, the so-called lessons learned gathering is performed at the end of the project to collect data, archive, and file them…and move on to the next project, re-inventing the wheel at each iteration, especially in project-oriented organizations where knowledge retention and sharing is particularly difficult.

To be really efficient the lessons learned processes have not only to be applied all along the projects' lifecycles but they have to be operationally connected to concrete sets of actions and clearly defined as project activities, not only addressing the improvement of the project management process quality but also delivering concrete outcomes for the project. That's why the lessons learned processes have to be driven at the organization's level and not limited to a single project. In some cases, they can be placed at the program level, gathering and consolidating new benefits to be produced by launching new program or portfolio components.

Concretely putting in place a Lessons Learned Organizational Policy

In terms of process improvement, there are two different dimensions to consider: The first is linked to the process itself, or in other words, how you run the different project management processes in your organization. This first aspect is usually impacted by lessons learned extracted from the ability of the organization to use the tools and techniques required in the organizations' project management guidelines. This improvement endeavor, which implies re-using data and information gathered from the analysis of the performance of projects undertaken by the organization, is usually a responsibility of the project management office (PMO).

The second dimension directly impacts the outcomes and deliverables of each project. The information has to be re-used operationally in the execution of key project management processes. The use of historical data in the planning process group, especially in the estimation activities, may seem to be obvious. But to be effective and really allow projects to move from lessons logged to lessons learned, the information recycling must be used in the risk management, procurement, performance appraisal, and communications-related processes.

The Organizational Lessons Learned Policy

A policy to be put in place for efficient and effective lessons learned needs to go beyond the simple boundary of the single project. It needs to be placed at the organizational level. Otherwise, there will be a natural trend which consists in collecting history of the project (usually the bad), store it somewhere, and wait for the next project to come. This is what we call lessons logged: collect, store and forget.

To avoid this trend, it is very important to understand lessons learned as an initiative having as an aim to trigger a change in the organization. And as such, it is a change that needs to demonstrate its value, meaning its business value, supported by a business case.

If one thinks in terms of business case, then the idea of resources and investment appears naturally, and that usually means limits. We need to limit our lessons learned effort to a set of outcomes which will be easily demonstrated as being a value-generator by confirming them in a business case.

And finally, to be able to measure value or any kind of benefit, we need to put in place means to measure the impact of the expected improvements, which is nothing else than KPIs.

A policy that drives lessons learned should be structured as follows:

  • An organizational perspective to cross the single project's boundaries and to enforce the usage of the lessons gathering outputs.
  • A limited scope to concrete and objective targets, which are easy to implement and measure:
    • Estimates (for durations, costs, efforts);
    • Risks (taking into account risk and issue logs from all projects. Never start a risk identification workshop without having in hand documentation from other projects).
  • Standardized documentation for the aspects mentioned above, which indeed requires the involvement of a PMO at the organizational level. The content and structure of these documents being of course impacted by their usability and adjusted according to the outcomes of lessons learned.

Sustainability vs. Amnesia: From Lessons Logged to Lessons Learned

Lessons learned, meaning targeted, structured, and enforced in policy, is the first and most important input which will allow an organization to place itself in a continuous improvement cycle, allowing it to develop and maintain itself in its market.

Lessons logged, just gathered and stored data, not converted into information and triggers for change, will result in a waste—waste of resources, time, effort, and, more than anything, waste in motivation of the team members, demonstrating a lack in leadership and consideration for early accomplishments. But using lessons learned as a key for rewarding and motivating is another story….


Project Management Institute. (2014). PMBOK® guide and standards. Newtown Square, PA: Author. Retrieved from

© 2014, Olivier Lazar
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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