11 ground-rules for successful After Action reviews

AAR is a quick and simple but powerful KM process. Here are 11 rules for AAR success.

After Action Review (AAR) is one of the most basic Knowledge Management processes – quick, simple and powerful when used well, and when used to drive change and improvement. An organisation that develops the AAR habit is well on the way to becoming an learning organisation.

AAR is a very simple process – it’s basically 5 questions:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why was there a difference?
  • What have we learned?
  • What will we do about it?

However there are certain ground rules which need to be applied if AARs are to deliver value. The 11th rule is the most important! 
  1. Ask open and honest questions, offer open and honest response 
  2. There are no wrong responses; every response is someones viewpoint
  3. Leave preconceptions and prejudgments at the door 
  4. Leave hierarchy at the door as well – everyone’s knowledge is of equal value 
  5. Respect and listen to each other 
  6. Disagreement is positive and needs to be explored 
  7. Don’t rush to solutions  
  8. Get to root cause (the third question – “why was there a difference” – is really the first step in root cause analysis and you may need several more Why’s before you get to root cause)
  9. Focus on real issues and learning, not individual performance evaluation.
  10. Keep the meeting brief and focused.
  11. Incorporate the learnings into future activity

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

5 success factors for project learning

Learning effectively from projects is a goal for many organisations. Here are some ways how to do it.

The list below of success factors for project-based learning was proposed by Schindler and Eppler, two researchers working out of University of St. Gallen (Switzerland), in their paper “Harvesting Project Knowledge: A Review of Project Learning Methods and Success Factors“.

It’s a pretty good list! Their text is in bold, my commentary on each of these is in normal font.

  1. “From single review to continuous project learning – we stress the necessity for continuous project learning through regular reviews”.  In Knoco, we recommend any project define the methods and frequency up front through the use of a Knowledge Management Plan, and that suitable processes are the After Action review and the Retrospect, or Lessons Capture meeting, or even a Learning History in the case of mega-projects. This is the Process component of  project-based learning. Learning within the project is covered by After Action review, export of learning to other projects is covered by Retrospects.
  1. “New project roles and tasks – the need for new roles for project knowledge management should have become obvious”.  This is the Roles and Accountabilities component of project-based learning – we recommend that someone in the project team itself – a project Knowledge Manager –  takes accountability for ensuring learning processes are applied, making use of facilitation skills as appropriate. This need not be a full time role, but it should be a single point accountability.
  1. “Integration of learning and knowledge goals into project phase models–  project learning is too important to be left to chance or to the initiative of motivated individuals”. This is what we include as part of the Governance component of project-based learning. By embedding knowledge management processes into the project phase models or project management framework, we set a very clear expectation that project learning is important and part of normal project activity. Lesson Learning shoul dbe emphasised in the project management policy.
  1. Integration of learning and knowledge goals into project goals – Adding knowledge goals to every project step can foster systematic reflection about every milestone in a project. This we also include as part of the Governance component of project-based learning. This is the performance management element of Governance. If learning is in the project goals or the project objectives, then the project team will be judged and rewarded by whether they learn, as part of judging and rewarding whether they met their goals. 
Schindler and Epper therefore cover three out of the four enablers for Knowledge management – Roles and Accountabilities, Processes, and Governance. 
The one they do not cover is technology, perhaps because there were few effective Lessons-Management technologies around in 2003. Therefore I would like to propose a 5th enabler, as follows;
  1. Application of an effective lessons management system, including workflow to ensure the lessons reach those who must take action as a result, and a tracking system to track the effectiveness and application of learning.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Fast learning in action – the Tailboard AAR

Sometimes learning after an event should be instantaneous, as in the “Tailboard AARs” used by fire crews.

Fire crews on sceneThe Tailboard AAR  is a term used by the Fire Service to describe a short Knowledge-sharing session (an After Action Review) that should happen immediately after activity, around the Tailboard of a fire truck, if necessary.

The great thing about this reflective event is that it should happen immediately, while the team are still “present in the moment”, before they get back to base, before memories start to shift, and while the shared experience they have just been through is still at it’s most vivid.

Here’s what the Fire Service says

“For (Goodyear Arizona Fire Department Chief) Russ Braden, AARs provide the first level of  learning for the organization and the best opportunity for constructing a safety-aware working culture. “Quite simply put, this is nothing more than a crew taking a few minutes to review the incident or a recent event. This is the time within the safety of their crew to review what went well, what can be improved, or what didn’t work at all. This type of learning environment will begin to spread lessons to each of the work groups, shifts, and to the rest of the department as it perpetuates.”  

District employees for the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, AZ, recently began carrying AAR pocket cards to facilitate the district wide use of “tailboards.” 

At a recent meeting of district Battalion Chiefs, personnel said the AARs were making impacts on the organization in several different ways. Captain Tim Graves said one of the best features of the four-question AAR that he’s found is its adaptability to the scale of the incident. ….. 

Battalion Chief Mike Duncan said “I think the AARs are a very critical trust piece: people learn that it’s OK to bring out actions that didn’t go as planned. …   

Division Chief Kelly McCoy said he thought the AAR format was helping to promote the mindset of planning. …  Other personnel said what they liked about the AAR process was that it was easy to use with a group.”

After Action Reviews have been around for a long time as a Knowledge Sharing tool, and the experience of the Fire Crews reminds us of some of the AAR ground rules.

  1. Hold your AAR immediately after activity. For the fire crews, it’s round the truck tailboard. For a sales team, it might be the a Back of the Taxi AAR. For a legal team, it might be a Courtroom Steps AAR. For a forestry team, it’s still a Tailboard AAR, but the tailboard is a logging truck.
  2. Hold your AAR routinely. By tagging it to the tailboard, the taxi or the courtroom steps, you introduce a trigger for review and reflection.
  3. Give people support. Give them the Pocket Cards. Allow them to adapt them to the needed scale.
  4. Carry the AARs through into planning. 

You may not use trucks with tailboards, but how can your organisation embed the habit of immediate after-the-event pausing, and learning?

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

The 11 steps of FEMA’s lesson capture process

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a pretty good process for capturing and distributing lessons. Here are the 11 steps.

FEMAEvery Emergency Services organisation pays close attention to Lesson-Learning  (see for the approach taken by the Wildland Fire Service). They know that effective attention to learning from lessons can save lives and property when the next emergency hits.

The lesson learning system at FEMA was described in an appendix to a 2011 audit document  and showed the following 11 steps in the process for moving from activity to distributed lessons and best practices.  Please note that I have not been able to find a more recent description of the process, which may have changed in the intervening 7 years.

FEMA Remedial Action Management Program Lessons Learned and Best Practices Process

  1. Team Leader (e.g., Federal Coordinating Officer) schedules after-action review
  2. After-action review facilitator is appointed
  3. Lesson Learned/Best Practice Data Collection Forms are distributed to personnel
  4. Facilitator reviews completed forms
  5. Facilitator conducts after-action review
  6. Facilitator reviews and organizes lessons learned and best practices identified in after-action review
  7. Facilitator enters lessons learned and best practices into the program’s database
  8. Facilitator Supervisor reviews lessons learned and best practices
  9. Facilitator Supervisor forwards lessons learned and best practices to Program Manager
  10. Program Manager reviews lessons learned and best practices
  11. Program Manager distributes lessons learned and best practices to Remedial Action Managers
This is a pretty good process.
However despite this good process, the audit showed many issues, including 
  • a lack of a common understanding of what a good lesson looks like; the examples shown are mainly historical statements rather than lessons, and this example from the FEMA archives has the unhelpful lesson “Learned that some of the information is already available information is available”
  • a lack of consistent application of the after action review process (in which I would include not getting to root cause, and not identifying the remedial action),
  • a lack of use of facilitators from outside the region to provide objectivity, 
  • limited distribution of the lesson output (which has now been fixed I believe, and 
  • loss of their lessons database when the server crashed (which has also been fixed by moving FEMA lessons to the Homeland Security Digital Library).

So even a good process like the one described above can be undermined by a lack of governance, a lack of trained resources, and a poor technology. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

After Action Review as an agent for culture change

When we talk about Culture Change and Knowledge Management, we need to realise that the Knowledge Management processes themselves are in themselves culture change agents.

change_thoughtsAfter Action reviews are a prime example. They promote openness; people will learn that ‘there is no comeback’ and questions will receive answers. They promote reflection, learning and a performance focus, through discussions on “What did we set out to achieve? What actually happened” “How can we do better next time”.

Below is some feedback from work we did several years ago at an industrial plant in the US, experimenting with introducing After Action Review. We found that not only did the AARs identify many many opportunities to save time and money, they also started to change the mindset, as these quotes from the workforce demonstrate.

“I thought I needed to be the expert and felt threatened at first. After a few AAR’s I felt comfortable that the guys appreciated using their ideas and we became a team” (Supervisor)

“Before the AAR, they didn’t feel like they were a team; After a few AAR’s they became one”. (Boilermaker)

“I have been doing this work for 20 years, and no one has ever asked me what I thought before; so it was a change”. (Boilermaker)

“We are now doing a Before action review in the mornings”. (Supervisor)

Here’s another quote, from a mine manager in Botswana, where we used AARs to radically improve some of his production processes, and deliver savings in the million-dollar range. However for him, there was something even more important than the money.

“The most important thing was the engagement of the people. The people who were involved in this, they actually feel that they are part of a team now. It’s not the project team vs the contractor vs the end users – everybody is part of a single team now. And people are actually coming up with suggestions for implementation, and what makes it quite exciting is that people come up with very good suggestions, we implement it, they see the implementation of that, and they see the benefit afterwards, and so success breeds success”.

That engagement, and that “success breeding success,” was worth more to this manager than a million dollars, because it is the start of a new engaged performance-driven knowledge-enabled and knowledge-seeking culture that will deliver value for years to come.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

6 reasons why After Action reviews are such a great tool.

After Action reviews are one of the core tools in Knowledge Management – but what makes them so powerful?

After Action Reviews (AARs) are like the Hammer in the Knowledge Manager’s toolkit – one of the most basic and most important tools.

They are applied in many organisations around the world as part of their Knowledge Management Framework.  They are focused review meetings, relatively short in duration, designed to help the team become conscious of their own knowledge, so they can act on that knowledge as work progresses. It is like “learning on Tuesday to perform better on Wednesday”. In addition, the learning can be transferred to other teams, but this is generally a secondary role.

 This process was developed by the US Army, who use it as their main knowledge-gathering process. It does not go into very great analytical depth, and so is useful for reviewing short-turnaround activity, or single actions. It is short and focused enough to do on a daily basis, perhaps at the end of a meeting or at the end of a shift. After Action review consists of a face-to-face team discussion around 5 questions:

  • “What was supposed to happen’?” 
  •  “What actually happened?” 
  • “Why was there a difference?” 
  • “What have we learned?” 
  • “What will we do about it?” 

So what makes AARs so valuable? Here are 6 reasons (and you can find 6 more reasons here);

  1. AARs are a conversation about knowledge. They are not progress reviews or individual evaluations, they are conversations with the sole purpose of discussing new knowledge and new learning. The very act of holding an AAR is an acknowledgement that knowledge is important.
  2. AARs are high bandwidth.  Face to face conversation is far and away the best method to surface shared knowledge and to discuss it. 
  3. AARs are culture change agents. People find that it is possible to open up and to share knowledge in a group session, with no risk and no comeback. 
  4. AARs are instant feedback. As people share their knowledge, they can see it being transformed instantly into actions and improvements. Instead of their knowledge vanishing into a black hole, they see immediate results.
  5. AARs are quick and efficient. They can take as little as 15 or 20 minutes, but may have a big cumulative effect. 
  6. AARs lead to action and to change.  Or at least, they should do. Question 5 is the key here – “What are we going to do about it”? AARs are successful to the extent that they lead to change and to action. If they are just talking shops – if all they do is lead to bullet points on a flipchart – then they are a waste of time. AARs should be used to drive changes and improvements in the way a team, department or organisation works. 

If you can apply AARs as part of your KM Framework to regularly drive improvement and change, then you have made full use of this simple yet powerful tool. 

View Original Source Here.