The 11 steps of the closed lesson-learning loop
A lesson, or a piece of knowledge, goes through eleven generic steps in its life cycle.
That’s partly why lesson learning is not easy – the lifecycle of a lesson contains several steps if the learning loop is to be closed, and the lesson is to lead to embedded change and improved results.
Step one, review of activity.
The initial step in the lesson learned process is to review and restate the purpose and context of the activity being reviewed. Each lesson is learned in a specific context, and needs to be viewed in that context. For example the lessons learned from a project operating in a remote third-world location, where supply of spares and material is highly challenging, may learn different lessons from those in a project based in the commercial US. This activity review will look at context, objectives, and outcomes.
Step two, identification of learning points.
By comparing outcomes against objectives and expectations, this step allows a number of learning points to be identified. The outputs of this step are observations that something has been unusually successful, or unexpectedly unsuccessful, and that a lesson needs to be identified. These Observations are the first stage in lesson identification and development – the egg from which a lesson may grow, if you like.
Step three, analysis of learning point.
This takes the form of root cause analysis, seeking to find the root cause which created the result identified as an observation. There may of course be more than one root cause. Once the root cause is been identified, these are the “insights” of the Military lesson-learning quadrad of Observations/Insights/Lessons/Actions
Step four, generalization and creation of learning advice. Once the root causes have been identified and the insights generated, the next stage is to discuss how the same operation or project, or future operations and projects, may avoid the root causes that caused cost or delay, or reproduce the root causes that led to success. The discussion leads to derivation of a lesson, which should be phrased in the form of advice or recommendations for the future. At this stage we have a “lesson identified” rather than a lesson learned.
Step five, identification of action. Once the lesson has been identified, the next question to address is how the learning may be embedded by changes in the processes, procedures, standards, operating instructions, manuals, proposal decks, training and structures of the organization. In order for embedding to take place, somebody has to take an action to update the processes etc, and an action must be identified and assigned.
The 5 steps above are often conducted verbally within the project team, and mirror the 5 questions of the After Action review or Retrospect. In the steps below, the lesson leaves the team and starts to move out into the organisation.
Step six, lesson documentation. The lesson may be documented after the action has been discussed, or the lesson may be documented after step four, when it is still a “lesson identified”. In some cases, when the lessons are submitted by individuals, they document the lessons step by step, as they go through the thought process. In other cases, as discussed below, the lesson is first discussed and then later documented based on notes or records from the discussion. We can think of this as a “lesson documented“. And to be honest, you can have a lesson learning system where this step is omitted, and all lessons are communicated verbally.
Step seven, lesson/action validation. Most lesson learning systems contain at least one validation step, where one or more people with authority examine the documented lesson and the assigned actions, to make sure that the lesson is valid and truly merits action and change, and that the proposed action is appropriate. Some regimes include a risk analysis, or a management of change analysis, on the actions proposed, if they are big enough. The deliverable from this step is a validated lesson/action
Step eight, lesson management. In many ways you can describe all of the steps listed here as “lesson management”, but in most of the organizations any oil and gas sector, a lessons management technology system (sometimes known as a lessons database) is brought in to ensure that lessons are “managed” by being routed to the people who most need to see them. This “routing of lessons” is crucial in a large organisation, to make sure the action-holders are notified of the lesson, and the action they need to take. The deliverable from this stage is a change request.
Step nine, take action. The action identified above, if valid, needs to be taken, and the change made. This is the most crucial step within the lesson learning system, because without change, no learning will have occurred. The deliverable from this step is Change.
Step ten, lesson closure. Once the changes being made, the lessons can be completed, or closed. The lifecycle of that particular lesson is over, and it can be archived or deleted.
Steps 5 to 11 are concerned not so much with the identification of the lesson, but with the way in which it leads to the right change in the organisation, and improves future decisions.
As this blog post shows, these ten steps can take place within a single project, across many projects, or across a whole organisation. However the ten steps are needed in each case.