Tag Archives: After Action Reviews

Lessons Learned – notes from an APM web briefing

By Elisabeth Goodman and John Riddell, RiverRhee Consulting

(Preview of a blog to appear on the APM website)

A recent discussion thread on the APM (Association for Project Management) website focussed on the potential value of Lessons Learned and the failure modes that generally occur.  We have edited the points made in the discussion thread into an APM Web Briefing.

This blog summarises the discussion from the briefing, and is supplemented by some of the authors’ own reflections.

Lessons Learned can contribute to the success of projects

When used well Lessons Learned can contribute to the overall success of projects by re-using and building on approaches that have worked well and avoiding the repetition of previous mistakes.  Lessons Learned can also represent valuable intellectual property, deepen the relationship between suppliers and customers, and generally provide a competitive advantage.  A disciplined approach to Lessons Learned can make an important difference to cost, quality and time.

Why do Lessons learned not always work?

Some of the failure modes encountered are:

  • Lessons Learned are often not captured well.  There are several different ways in which this could be done more effectively, for instance by capturing Lessons Learned through the life of the project.
  • Lessons Learned need effective methods of communication.  Stakeholders need to be made aware of what’s available and how to access it.  Conversation is the most effective way to share lessons learned. Communities of Practice (e.g. between Project Managers) may help as might encouraging new teams to share with previous ones, and the use of published guides.
  • Adoption of ideas/outcomes from others may be hindered by cultural and behavioural factors. This may be linked to overall organisational culture, and to whether people are encouraged to learn from ‘mistakes’ or ‘failures’ and ‘successes’.  Whilst all individuals should have a responsibility in this area it may help to hold Project Managers accountable for taking a pro-active approach to Lessons Learned.

Overall a mix of process and culture can hinder the benefits that could otherwise be gained from a structured approach to Lessons Learned.

LESSONS LEARNED are a key component of knowledge management

RiverRhee Associates’ experience of Lessons Learned goes a bit further, as they are a key component of Knowledge Management approaches that we teach and facilitate for sharing learning, insights and experience within and between project and operational teams.

As the discussion thread and Web Briefing mention, Lessons Learned can be captured throughout the life of a project (or other kind of team), or at the end.  The Knowledge Management literature1 refers to learning before, during and after.

learning during: after action reviews

Frequent, short, and relatively informal learning reviews during the life of a project or operational team are sometimes known as ‘After Action Reviews’.  First introduced by the US Army, the intent is to capture and review Lessons Learned after any significant event, so that any corrective or supporting action can be implemented immediately.  In a project team, these After Action Reviews could be carried out after a critical activity or at each stage gate.  In an operational team they could occur as part of regular or periodic team meetings. Important ground-rules for these reviews include: everyone being involved, no blame, and ensuring that Lessons Learned are shared with everyone relevant whether inside or outside the team.  A typical structure for After Action Reviews will include: a recap of objectives, what actually happened and how this differed from the intent, what can be learnt from this difference, and who to share the Lessons Learned with.  What can be learnt covers both what contributed to things going well, and the causes for anything not going well.

Learning after: Learning retrospects

A more reflective Learning Retrospect or History takes place at the end of a project or programme.  It will explore the same questions as an After Action Review, but the recap of objectives and what happened will be a broader based exercise.  We’ve facilitated this kind of learning review for a project in a workshop setting, with the originally planned and actual project milestones mapped out and annotated with post-it notes from the team members to indicate what went well and what could have been improved against these milestones. Again this kind of exercise will be most effective where there is involvement of the whole team, including the project sponsor(s), and agreement on what Lessons Learned will be shared with whom, how and when.

Learning before: peer assists

The third type of learning intervention takes place ‘before’ or at the start of a project or operational team.  Also known as ‘Peer Assists’, this involves bringing together the members of the new team, and some or all members of previous teams who have Lessons Learned to share.  In this situation, the new team lays out its draft plans, concerns, ideas and any specific questions for the visiting team.  The visiting team considers and then shares what insights it can bring to the new team.  The new team then uses these insights to revise its plans and also as input for its risk analysis.

How to be more successful with LESSONS LEARNED

As noted in the Web Briefing, the successful adoption of some or all of these 3 approaches for learning before, during and after will depend on the rigour with which teams and organisations implement the processes, and the nature of the supporting culture and behaviours.  Incorporation of the learning processes into project methodology, facilitation through PMOs or other central groups, and role modelling by sponsors and management teams are examples of how such successful adoption can be enabled.


1. Chris Collison & Geoff Parcell.  Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations.  Capstone, 2nd Edition, 2004.

Team development, pre-requisites for success and temperature checks: tools for effective change management

By Elisabeth Goodman and Lucy Loh

This is the fourth in our series of blogs on “Enhancing Team Effectiveness in a time of change” based on our recent publication in Business Information Review(1), and other publications and seminars in progress.

In our first blog (Enhancing team effectiveness in a time of change – an introduction), we described the challenges being faced by organisations, teams and individuals and the impact that these changes have on them.

Our second blog (Recognising reactions to change, and responding to them) explored how people (either as individuals or teams) respond to change and how to help them through their journeys in a positive way.

Our third blog (Tools for supporting teams during their journeys through change) introduced five more specific tools for supporting teams during their journeys through change.

This fourth blog explores three of the tools: team development, pre-requisites for success and team temperature checks in more detail. Our next and final blog in this series will explore the other two tools: Lean and Six Sigma in Change Management and Dilts’ Logical Levels of Change.  We will also prompt you to reflect on the series of blogs on this topic, and initiate some activity to review and enhance the effectiveness of the teams you belong to.

Using a team development model to progress towards and sustain a ‘high performance’ team

We have used a version of the Tuckman(2) and Hersey-Blanchard(3)  team development models with teams that are just starting up, as well as with already established teams.  It helps leaders and team members to understand where the team is in its evolution, and what they could do to help it develop towards a stage of ‘high performance’.

The renewing (also sometimes referred to as ‘mourning’) and forming stages are the ones that will happen most frequently at a time of change for the team.  These are the ones that require the most ‘hands-on’ and directive attention from the leader.  For a team going through change and renewal, it is important for the team leader and members to celebrate the successes of the past (as previously mentioned), and to take note of what made them successful.

Team leaders and members may fear and try to avoid the storming stage but this is an important time for people to air their views openly and share their ideas constructively in order to make the team stronger.

In fact the team leader needs to play a different role at different stages: one-on-one interactions with team members are especially valuable in the storming stage and a focus outwards to stakeholders in the high performing stage.  Through awareness of these different stages, team members can also support the team leader and other team members, as well as ensure that they are fully developing their role within the team.

Structured learning techniques such as discussing other teams’ experiences in ‘Peer Assists’ at the start of a team’s life, conducting ‘After Action Reviews’ (timely debriefs on lessons learnt) at key milestones, and holding in-depth ‘Learning Retrospects’ at the end of a team’s life can be particularly useful to capture and share lessons learnt between existing and new team members and others outside of the team(4).

Identifying and agreeing on best practices as pre-requisites for success

We have coached team leaders in using variations of a list of prerequisites as a checklist for effectiveness.  Team members can help to identify, prioritise and explore best practices for check-lists such as the following:

  • Clear purpose & goals
  • Trust & support each other
  • Open communication
  • Clear roles
  • Diversity
  • Task / Relationship Balance
  • Decision Making
  • Meeting management
  • Information Management

Using team temperature checks to monitor and enhance team effectiveness

We use team temperature checks as a diagnostic with the previous prerequisites, at a time of change, to determine the status of the team, and to actively engage team members on the priorities to be addressed going forward.

The relative importance of each prerequisite will change during the life of the team, as will the team’s perception of how well they are performing.  Rather than dwell retrospectively on everything that is not working, the team should focus on the biggest gaps between importance and performance of a prerequisite, and explore the suggestions for improvement in order to move forward in a constructive way.

At the request of team leaders, we have polled members individually to obtain ratings of the perceived importance and performance against each prerequisite, and to encourage them to make suggestions for improvement to bring back to a team workshop.  Using an external objective facilitator can help with this, although in the long-term teams could manage this themselves e.g. by doing periodic ‘After Action Reviews’ in team meetings, or at key milestones.

In a time of change it may also be appropriate to involve customers, suppliers and other stakeholders in this process.  This will deliver two benefits: getting some external input, and also building relationships with people of importance to the team either during or after the change.


  1. Goodman, E and Loh, L. (2011) Organisational change: a critical challenge for team effectiveness.  Business Information Review, 28(4) 242-250
  2. Tuckman, B. and Jensen, M. (1977) Stages of small group development revisited, Group and Organizational Studies, 419-27
  3. Hersey, P and Blanchard, K Situational Leadership.  See for example : www.12manage.com
  4. Collison, Chris and Parnell, Geoff (2004) Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations. Capstone; 2nd Edition

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that helps business teams to enhance their effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale. Elisabeth has 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry where she has held line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and in Lean Sigma and is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals), and APM (Association for Project Management).

Lucy Loh is the Owner and Principal Consultant at Lucy Loh Consulting, a consultancy that helps businesses and organisations develop their business plans, and manage change in their organisations and teams to be able to deliver those plans.  She is also a RiverRhee Consulting Associate.  Lucy has 25 years’ experience in BioPharma, where she has held management roles in strategy development and all aspects of performance management, as well as extensive internal consulting.  Lucy has expertise and experience in organisation development, benefits management and in designing and leading business change. She is a certified Master Practitioner of NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP), which enhances her work in change management and individual coaching.  She is also an accredited trainer with the Institute of Leadership and Management for Strategic Leadership.

Lean Six Sigma and Project Management – triangles and (virtuous) circles

By Elisabeth Goodman and John Riddell

On 6th July, we held a very enjoyable second iteration of our APM workshop on this topic in Norwich, having run it previously in Stevenage in May.

As with the previous seminar, our audience ranged from people and organisations with very limited knowledge of Lean and Six Sigma, to those who had adopted it as a way of working.  So the challenge was, in 1 to 1 ½ hours, to give enough of an overview of Lean and Six Sigma for those who were new to the subject, without boring those with already a fair amount of expertise.

At the same time, our goal was to make the session as interactive as possible, with discussions and exercises that would enable people to actively reflect, learn from each other, and more importantly, consider if and how Lean and Six Sigma could assist them in their roles as Project Managers.

Our mapping of Lean and Six Sigma against the project triangle seemed to resonate with the delegates i.e. with Lean aiming to reduce time and cost, and Six Sigma aiming to increase quality.

We achieved an excellent level of discussion and interaction in both seminars, and here are some of the conclusions that the delegates came to.

There are many Lean and Six Sigma tools that people have already found to be useful and/or anticipate being useful.

Examples of tools highlighted during the discussion in Norwich were:

  • Kano (and Voice of the Customer)
  • Time value map
  • Use of historical data
  • Control charts
  • 5 Whys
  • Gemba
  • Poke Yoke
  • Pareto Analysis

Our audience in Stevenage listed more or less the whole gamut of Lean and Six Sigma tools!

Lean and Six Sigma can definitely enhance the delivery of projects.

Delegates were unanimous in this,.  One break-out group suggested that Lean and Six Sigma fits particularly well with the operations area of organisations, and that process improvement initiatives will lead to projects.

Delegates identified several ways for how Lean and Six Sigma could enhance the delivery of projects.

Using Lean and Six Sigma at the start of a project (during the concept and definition stages).

The Define, Measure and Analyse stages of the Lean Six Sigma DMAIC framework and associated tools can be very effective in identifying the problems which will lead to generating and/or justifying projects.

They help to define what the problems are and how to address them, and also to define the project brief.

Tools such as Pareto analysis help to identify the things that are important, and make sure that the biggest issues are tackled first.

Process analysis will help to eliminate waste before implementing new (e.g. IT) solutions.

The Lean Six Sigma tools and the data-based approach create greater confidence.

Delegates particularly liked the ability to use robust data collection techniques and tools such as force-field analysis to structure their thinking.

They also liked the ‘5 Whys’ for getting at the root causes of problems and surfacing clients’ real issues.  They also suggested using ‘5S’ to organise information (not just physical things)

The Improve stage of DMAIC can help with the implementation stage of projects

It can help with the definition of roles in a project, in particular in relation to sponsors and to ensure that the project is focusing on what is of value to the customer (this also happens at the Concept and Definition stages of projects), and relating that to the realization of benefits.

The Control stage of DMAIC (and Knowledge Management) can help with project close out

Many delegates were already familiar with the idea of capturing learnings at project close-out, but they liked the fuller ‘After Action Review’ (AAR) frame-work and the emphasis on considering who can learn from the lessons learnt.

They also liked how the various visual tools of Lean and Six Sigma could help with ‘highlight reporting’ in project management.

The Lean and Six Sigma and Project Management ‘virtuous’ circle may go on infinitely or break and re-start depending on the organisation.

Our presentation included a suggested overlay of the Lean and Six Sigma DMAIC structure over the project lifecycle.  Delegates pointed out that this may be the case in organisations such as Pharmaceutical R&D where projects are the regular way of working.  In other organisations, the DMAIC structure continues into the operational way of working once a project is completed, although it may in time spawn new projects.


  1. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant and John Riddell is Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting– a Business Consultancy that helps business teams to enhance team effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale.
  2. To see previous newsletters and blogs on subjects relating to Lean and Six Sigma, and Project Management see the RiverRhee Consulting newsletter, and Elisabeth Goodman’s blog site.