Using the project management process to improve lessons learned resolution results
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has an established lessons learned program that documents both shortfalls for corrective action and best practices for wider departmental dissemination. This program is supported by a department-wide automation system. The program follows a five-phase process: discovery, validation, resolution, evaluation, and dissemination, with most phases effectively accomplished—except for resolution. This difficulty is centered on the lack of a detailed issue resolution process that action officers can use to guide their efforts. Using the project management process during the issue resolution phase will provide a firm foundation for action officers to begin their efforts of making the organization more efficient and effective. In addition, the project management process will gain a wider audience in a large organization that can use a detailed process to address day-to-day administrative and functional problems.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has a well-established and documented process for identifying lessons. Unfortunately, there is a breakdown with the local corrective action/issue resolution process. Some organizations have difficulty resolving shortfalls because they do not have an effective process, or the one they have is not used consistently. Applying the civilian project management process to augment the existing lessons learned program (LLP) can be an effective method to fix this deficiency. While this concept is discussed in the context of the DoD's lessons learned program, it could be used by any organization that has a culture of using lessons learned to improve their operations. This concept may also result in wider use of the project management process in the DoD.
Figure 1: The joint lessons learned program process (JLLP) (U.S. Department of Defense, 2018).
Introduction to the Joint Lessons Learned Program
As a result of the congressional directive in Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 153, the DoD implemented a joint lessons learned program (JLLP) throughout all combatant commands and services to gather, develop, and disseminate lessons learned for the armed forces (blue boxes in Figure 1). The DoD designed a five-phase process to implement the law: discovery, validation, resolution, evaluation, and dissemination. The process is supported by an automation system called the joint lessons learned information system (JLLIS).
The process begins when some aspect of an exercise, operation, or event did not go as planned, resulting in an unanticipated outcome. Observations are issues (shortcomings) or best practices (procedures that show positive results and are worthy of continued use). They are actively discovered by observation, interviews, and recording of results against a validated checklist, procedure, or standing operating procedure (SOP). They are passively discovered by reviewing previously produced after-action reports (AAR), briefings, and hot-washes for other purposes. The output of this phase is one or more refined observations that should be validated during the next phase. The focus of this paper is on issues, not best practices.
Subject matter experts (SMEs) review and analyze observations prior to validating for submission to the issue resolution process. During the review step, an issue is evaluated to ensure it contains enough information to conduct a root cause analysis and is relevant to the organization. Once analysis begins, root cause analysis is conducted, initial corrective actions are recommended, and an organization is assigned to lead the issue through the remainder of the JLLP. Each organization has an assigned and trained lesson manager (LM) who understands the LLP and is trained to use the JLLIS system to support the program. After an observation is validated, it becomes a lesson and moves to the next phase.
Action officers (AOs) (i.e., project managers) are selected and work with the LM to enter issues into an issue resolution process. Unfortunately, a specific process is not outlined in law or any of the DoD joint publications, leaving organizations, LMs, and AOs to decide the best way to address the issue. This is where the project management process can be of significant value as a baseline for planning an issue-to-resolution process, since “actual resolution of an issue normally takes place outside the JLLP process, using other formally designated change management processes” (CJCSM 3150.25B, 2018). The goal for any issue that enters the resolution phase is for it to be fixed, institutionalized, and operationalized, eventually evolving from a “lesson” to a “lesson learned.” The JLLIS is used to track, manage, monitor, and collaborate on issues and is a mechanism for all parties involved with an issue to track progress to completion. The final output from the resolution phase is a resolved issue.
Organization leaders and AOs determine the adequacy of the solution after observing its use under actual conditions. The AO monitors the implemented lessons and tracks progress to ensure evaluation takes place as soon as practical. It is then evaluated during an exercise or real-world event, and the output is a successful “lesson learned” or a lesson that needs to go back into the resolution phase for rework. Lessons learned should result in positive change to DoD doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and/or policy (DOTMLPF).
The lesson learned is institutionalized by actively communicating it during training events, in publications, and in meetings to organizations that would benefit from it. Finally, it can be passively communicated by ensuring the lesson learned is loaded into the JLLIS program so everyone in the community can access it.
Overview of the Project Management Process
The Project Management Institute (PMI) publishes standards and guidelines that are developed through a voluntary consensus development process. All discussion of specific project management steps, methods, and terms were taken from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition (PMI, 2017).
The project management framework outlined below provides AOs, SMEs, and LMs a menu to choose from when they select lessons for resolution. Depending on the scope and complexity of the lesson, all or only a few of the steps can be used. The purpose of using this framework is to provide a consistent process that everyone understands so that projects can be accomplished as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Projects (issue resolution) are temporary endeavors undertaken to create unique products, services, or results. The end of the project is reached when one or more of the following are true: Objectives are achieved or cannot be achieved; funding, resources, or personnel are no longer available; and/or the need no longer exists.
Table 1: PMBOK® Guide Process Group and Knowledge Area framework (PMI, 2017).
The columns of the matrix are Process Groups, which are logical groupings of project management processes to achieve specific objectives. The Initiating Process Group defines a new project by obtaining authorization to start. The Planning Process Group establishes the scope and objectives of the project, and defines a course of action. The Executing Process Group completes the work defined in the plan. The Monitoring and Controlling Process Group tracks, reviews, and regulates the progress and performance of the project. It also identifies and initiates changes to the plan. Finally, the Closing Process Group formally completes or closes the project.
The rows of the matrix are Knowledge Areas, which are described in terms of component processes, inputs, outputs, and tools. Of the ten Knowledge Areas, the only two that need to be defined are Project Integration Management and Project Scope Management; all others are self-explanatory. Project Integration Management includes the processes and activities to identify, define, combine, and coordinate the activities within the Process Groups. Project Scope Management includes the processes to ensure the project includes all work required—and only the work required—to complete the project successfully. Its goal is to prevent mission creep.
Action Officer and Lesson Manager Project Checklist
The following is a framework that AOs and LMs can use to assist with the resolution of lessons selected to enter the issue resolution process. As mentioned, this list is a guide; you can use as many or as few of the steps as necessary to accomplish the task. Additionally, the steps you use can be pasted into the issue resolution module in the JLLIS to track the progress of the project.
1. Initiate (define initial scope, identify stakeholders, commit resources)
a. Input: Issue identified during an operation, exercise, or daily work
b. Tools/techniques: Meetings, expert judgment, data gathering
i. Charter (formally initiates a lesson/project and establishes a partnership between those requesting and those who are doing the work) (completed by the director and lesson manager)
1. Purpose (Why do we need to make a change?)
2. Objectives (What results do we want?)
3. Success criteria (standards and key performance indicators to evaluate the project)
4. Summary milestone schedule (backward plan from the not-later-than [NLT] date)
5. Approved resources (time, equipment, dollars)
6. Approval requirements (Who decides if a project is successful?)
7. Exit criteria (What things must be accomplished before the project can close?)
8. Initial stakeholder list (Who has interest in the project's success?)
9. Identify and assign action officers, subject matter experts, and team members (organization chart with roles and responsibilities)
10. Sponsor (person who provides resources and support and is accountable for results)
ii. Identify stakeholders (people/groups who have an interest in the project's success; could impact or be impacted by the project) (completed by the director and lesson manager)
1. Stakeholder register (update throughout the project):
a. Name/contact information
d. Major requirements or expectations
e. Potential influence on project
f. Classification (supporter, neutral, resistor)
g. Actions to take to secure stakeholder support
2. Plan (establish scope, determine objectives, develop course of action, develop plan)
a. Input: charter, stakeholder register, lessons learned from other organizations (JLLIS)
b. Tools/techniques: (meetings, expert judgment, data gathering)
i. Project management plan (define, prepare, coordinate, and consolidate components into an integrated plan) (completed by the action officer and lesson/project team members)
1. Scope – Focus on defining and controlling what is and what is not included as part of the project.
a. Collect requirements – What capability is necessary to satisfy the business need? (tools: brainstorming, interviews, questionnaires, benchmarking)
b. Scope statement –
i. Expand charter objectives – What results do we want?
ii. Expand charter purpose – What will the project change?
iii. Customer expectations – Lower cost, improved performance, higher quality?
iv. Description – Self-explanatory
v. Deliverables – Specific process or DOTMLPF change
c. Work breakdown structure (WBS) (subdivide deliverables and work into smaller, more manageable components and tasks)
d. At conclusion of this step, brief stakeholders and project sponsor to ensure this meets their expectations
2. Schedule – Detailed plan that represents how and when the project will deliver results (tools: Microsoft Project, JLLIS issue resolution module/milestones, bar chart, or network diagram)
a. Task – Deliverables and tasks from the WBS
b. Duration – Start/end date for each task and the overall project
c. Sequence – What needs to be done first, second, etc.? What tasks can be done at the same time? Any tasks that are resource dependent before they can be completed?
d. Office of primary responsibility (OPR) – Who is responsible for completing the task? Who do they need to coordinate with?
3. Cost – Will the project require funding? What source? Is it available in the current fiscal year or will it need to be projected in future budgets?
4. Resources - Identify, acquire, and manage the resources needed for successful completion.
a. Physical resource list – What equipment/supplies by type and quantity will be needed? Who acquires and where will it come from? Will new space be necessary for the project/capability and the project team?
b. Human resource list – Will new personnel be needed for the new project/capability or will it be accomplished by current members on staff?
c. Process charts and diagrams – Identify and document the steps and sequence to accomplish project tasks.
5. Communications and Stakeholder Engagement –
a. Is there an audience outside the team who needs to be informed of progress? Topics, frequency, and format.
b. How often and when will stakeholders be engaged during the process?
6. Risk – Increase the probability and impact of positive risks and decrease the probability and impact of negative ones.
a. Is there a risk if we do not pursue the project? If we do?
b. Quantify the risk if the project is pursued using your favorite method.
7. Validation, training, and knowledge dissemination – How will we document, validate, and train others on the change? Is this something we want to share with other organizations via JLLIS?
ii. Once the project management plan is complete, present it to the sponsor, stakeholders, and team members for approval, understanding, and guidance.
3. Execute/do (processes to complete the work defined in plan)
a. Inputs: project management plan, project schedule, risk considerations, lessons learned from other organizations (JLLIS), guidance
b. Tools/techniques: judgment, meetings, project software, and JLLIS
i. Direct and manage project work - Execute the plan in accordance with the project schedule.
1. Secure funding – The appropriate type, time, and amount
2. Acquire resources – Acquire and apply people, facilities, equipment, supplies, and time to the project at the necessary location and time.
3. Communications and stakeholder engagement –
a. Conduct regular internal team meetings to track progress and update benchmarks in JLLIS, and consider any changes that have been recommended or directed. Review risk.
b. Regularly meet with stakeholders and sponsor to update status and receive feedback.
c. Provide information to any other audiences that may have interest.
ii. Observe and measure – Ensure project meets outlined standards and key performance indicators identified in the project charter.
iii. Incorporate changes to the plan when directed and after approval from the project sponsor (and impacted stakeholders, if necessary).
iv. Manage project knowledge/lessons learned – Leverage prior organizational knowledge from JLLIS to produce/improve project outcomes, and make knowledge created by the project available to support future projects by updating JLLIS during and after project completion.
4. Monitor/check (track, review, report progress, and identify and initiate change)
a. Inputs: All documents produced in initiate, plan, and execute phases; in particular, objectives, success criteria, resource status, exit criteria, change, scope, schedule, cost, and risk
b. Tools/techniques: Judgment, data analysis decision making, and meetings
i. Status and progress reports – Create awareness and generate decisions
1. Control scope – Monitor status of project scope and manage changes to the scope baseline.
2. Control schedule – Monitor status of project to update schedule and manage changes to schedule baseline; update milestones in JLLIS.
3. Control cost – Monitor status of project to update projected costs and manage changes to the cost baseline.
4. Control resources – Ensure resources assigned and allocated are available as planned, and monitor planned versus actual utilization.
5. Monitor communications – Ensure information needs of project and stakeholders are met.
6. Monitor risks – Monitor implementation of risk response plans, track identified risks, identify/analyze new risks, and evaluate effectiveness.
ii. Change requests – Compare planned to actual results and issue to expand, adjust, or reduce any of the inputs above.
iii. Project management plan updates – Update project management plan based on any approved change requests.
5. Close (verify processes are completed to close project, information is archived, planned work is completed, and remaining team resources are released)
a. Inputs: All documents produced in initiate, plan, and execute phases; in particular, objectives, success criteria, resource status, exit criteria, change, scope, schedule, cost, and risk
b. Tools/techniques: judgment, data analysis, decision making, meetings, and JLLIS
i. Outbrief and approval from sponsor and stakeholders
ii. SOP updates and transition the change into normal operations workflow
iii. Course outline draft, update, and incorporation into organizations’ training plan for all current and future members
iv. Select future training exercise to test and validate new processes and procedures.
v. Update milestones and submit lessons learned into JLLIS when validated.
Applying the Framework to a Business Problem
Throughout the project management process, the lessons learned register is used as an input and output in Knowledge Areas and Process Groups. However, there is no formal process to address issues that may negatively impact a project before, during, or after completion. The use of the abbreviated project outline, as described in this paper, during the Develop Project Charter process to identify and rectify issues could be used by organizations to improve overall project results.
Additionally, as many government organizations do when they formalize a lessons learned program, project teams should identify and task one member or a group from the project team to formally lead the lessons learned effort. This person or team could use the joint lessons learned program (JLLP) process outlined in Figure 1 as a guide for their efforts.
They should review lessons identified during past projects for applicability and work with the project team leader to seek resolution if the issues could negatively impact the impending project. They should actively and passively identify and document lessons during the course of the project, recommending immediate resolution if there is a risk of project failure.
Finally, at the end of the project, they should document any lessons, both positive and negative. Positive ones should be logged in a lessons learned repository and communicated organization-wide so that future project team members are aware of them. Negative ones should be resolved, using the abbreviated project outline above, ideally before the next project begins.
At a minimum, the lesson should be documented for future resolution by an organizational leader so that it will be resolved for organizational improvement.
Here is a brief example of how this might work:
A warehouse and transportation company identified the need for a new hub near St Louis, Missouri, USA, because of its location near multiple interstate systems. Members from the human resources (HR), operations, finance, and supply groups are assigned to the team, with the operations representative as the team leader. The HR team member is dual-hatted as the lessons learned lead, in addition to their HR responsibilities during the project. As part of the new hub charter process, they talked to members of teams that were responsible for planning new hubs in the past and identified major cost overruns as a recurring problem. They recommended to the team leader that this be discussed when the charter was presented to company leadership so that a decision could be made to delay the hub project planning until the cost overrun issue was resolved.
Company leaders delayed the hub project planning process for 30 days, and tasked the same team to look into the cost overrun issue, with the finance member assigned as the team lead. Given the 30-day time limit, they decided to use the following parts of the lesson/project outline to abbreviate their effort:
A. Purpose – Money is the lifeblood of the company and unexpected project cost overruns must be eliminated so financial resources are available to pursue future opportunities.
- Establish a process that accurately identifies all project costs prior to project execution.
- Train all employees assigned to identify cost or work on a project team.
- Ensure the process is followed for all future projects and annually assessed for accuracy.
C. Success criteria – A readily understood process that results in cost overruns of no greater than 1% on all future projects
D. Summary milestone schedule
- Research industry standards and lessons from similar projects.
- Analyze the company's current cost process.
- Diagram a new cost process flow and determine if it can be automated with off-the-shelf technology.
- Test the new process using historical company projects.
- Handoff the cost overrun process to the finance division for execution, monitoring, and closure.
E. Approved resources – Establish a dedicated project team, dedicated office space and automation, and key employee time during research, analysis, and the new flow diagram.
F. Approval requirement – Director of operations and chief financial officer
A. Project management plan
a. Collect requirements – A process which accurately estimates project cost; off-the-shelf automation; training plan; integration plan; transition plan.
b. Scope statement – No change to charter objectives and purpose; expectation is that future projects will cost no more than 1% of project team estimate. Deliverables: updates to existing or new cost estimate process, which can be automated if possible; determine if the company has the correct number of trained employees to support the business; training plan for execution by the finance and HR divisions; integration plan so that the process is used by all future project teams and reviewed for accuracy annually.
Research industry standards and benchmarks, competitor processes, and company process/five days/first.
Update or redesign current process/10 days/second.
Test new process using past company projects/five days/third.
Handoff execution, monitoring, and closure to finance division/two days/fourth.
(3) Risk – The risk of not pursuing the project is that the company may spend more money than necessary for the new hub and not have funds available for other priorities.
(4) Validation, training, and knowledge dissemination
Validation – We will use the cost information from the two most recent hub projects to determine if the new process would have saved money. Also, we will test to determine if more trained cost specialists would have helped with accuracy.
Training – If successful, the finance division will be responsible for designing a training program for employees that costs projects.
Knowledge dissemination – Our team's lessons learned lead will write an article for the company newsletter, so that information about the process gets out to employees. Additionally, we recommend that the finance division briefs the new process to company leadership.
Since the product of this effort may be a long-term change to business processes, the team recommended, and company leadership approved, that once they had a solution to the cost-overrun problem, the execute, monitor, and close processes would be accomplished by the finance division so they could begin the hub project.
The U.S. Department of Defense has a well-established process for identifying lessons and, if the project management plan-based framework outlined above is considered during the issue resolution process, it will be improved to assure that validated issues can be resolved in an effective and efficient manner. The lesson/project outline was designed using the most pertinent items of the project management process to support lessons learned issue resolution. Once disseminated and institutionalized, it will help lesson managers and action officers with the important tasks of improving their organizations through thorough analysis and application of industry standard methods.
Project Management Institute. (2017). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Sixth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Manual. (2018, October 12). CJCSM 3150.25B, Joint lessons learned program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Defense.
About the Author
Mr. Peter Anderson is a joint lessons learned program manager assigned to U.S. Transportation Command, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, USA. Prior to this position, he served for 26 years in the U.S. Army, concluding his military career in 2016 as the G3, director of operations, Wisconsin Army National Guard. He is a Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification holder. He holds a master's degree in business administration from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Illinois, USA, a master's degree in strategic studies from U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA, and a bachelor's degree in finance from Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois, USA.