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An Effective Lessons Learned Process

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November 21, 2011 by rkelly976

Twitter has been a great medium for me to learn from and connect with some tremendous leaders and project management practitioners over the past 2 years.  I have had the opportunity to contribute to an e-book, join podcasts, and even get nominated in the Recent Computer Weekly Social Media Awards (vote for me now!).  It is with great honor that I will have some of those thought leaders provide blog contributions here on Kelly’s Contemplation over the next month or so.  To kick off this series, I am tremendously excited to share a post provided by Steve Hart.  Steve has proven to be a thought leader in this space and an excellent supporter of some of the initiatives I work on.  Without further delay, below are his thoughts on Lessons Learned…

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In my experience, the best practice area that is most often minimized or entirely overlooked is project closure. At the end of a project, project teams are hurriedly preparing to move onto their next assignment, and miss a prime opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the client organization. Implementation of a consistent continuous improvement practice (aka, the lessons learned process) enables the ability to enhance the organization’s project delivery capabilities with the initiation of each new project. The overall purpose of the lessons learned process is to identify improvement opportunities (things done well, or areas for improvement), and to initiate actionable next steps. In the context of this discussion, improvement opportunities can relate to both the product that was delivered, as well as how the project was planned and executed.

The lessons learned process should have consistent structure and organization from project to project. The following represents the primary steps in the lessons learned process:

  • Capture Ideas.
  • Group & Prioritize Improvement Opportunities
  • Identify & Assign Actions
  • Manage Actions Items

Capturing Ideas

There are 3 primary sources of ideas around lesson learned opportunities:

  • Opportunities captured throughout the project. As improvement opportunities are identified throughout the project, they should be captured in a central repository. Particularly for longer projects, these ideas may get lost by the time you get to the end of the project.
  • The themes from the Project Closure Survey represent direct input for capturing ideas about lessons learned opportunities.
  • Through the review of opportunities that have been captured previously, the facilitator prompts the participants to brainstorm additional improvement related ideas.

It is a best practice to attempt to “guide” the discussion through the various aspects of the project in an organized manner. This could be based upon project phases, work streams, product categories, or functional areas. As with any well facilitated brainstorming session, the facilitator discourages passing judgment on ideas at this point in the process. You are trying to encourage participation in the process from all participants. In addition, using techniques such as having participants write new ideas on post-it notes helps get everyone involved in the process.

Grouping & Prioritizing Ideas

After completing the “brainstorming” process, the facilitator helps the team organize the ideas in groupings of related opportunities. It makes it easier to organize the ideas if they are grouped / organized based upon the type of opportunity (or opportunities that can be addressed with a common set next steps).

During this process it represents a best practice to physically organize the ideas into the related categories. This is either accomplished by re-organizing the post-it notes (posting the ideas on the wall in the groupings), or resorting the ideas captured by a software tool (displaying the ideas in the groupings using tools such as a Excel, Visio or MindMapper).

Once the ideas are grouped, the team works together to identify the high priority opportunities based upon the potential impact associated with each opportunity. This impact could be related to an improvement to the product, or an improvement to the project delivery process (across all projects). The opportunities can either by rated as High, Medium, Low, or ranked from High to Low.

At the end of this process the facilitator is attempting to get people to agree that the “right” opportunities have been identified, and prioritized appropriately.

Many times this point in the process is a good break for the first lessons learned session. The break provides participants time to review and elaborate on the improvement ideas before identifying the next steps.

Identifying & Assigning Actions

After the ideas have been organized and prioritized, the facilitator helps the team identify the appropriate next steps for the high priority opportunities. The next steps identified generally represent actions required to get the improvement opportunities moving in the right direction (vs. the exact steps to solve/implement the improvement). The facilitator should steer the team away from getting into a detailed discussion on how to solve the problem.

At this point in the process the team is also looking for people that can “own” the problem, or at least take ownership for the problem to the point that the next steps are initiated. The “owner” is generally somebody that either has accountabilities tied to the opportunity, or the passion/desire to help move the opportunity forward.

Managing Action Items

The single biggest complaint or “pitfall” associated with the lessons learned process is that nothing happens with the feedback that is captured after the project is closed and the team members return to their “regular” jobs. Sometimes this happens because the action items generated out of the process are not “actionable” enough to be implemented, but more often than not it is because there is not a group or process that is responsible for making sure there is the appropriate follow-through for the continuous improvement ideas and actions..

Part of creating a culture of continuous improvement is ensuring that there is the appropriate hand-off between the project team that identified the opportunity and the team that is responsible for implementing it. In a best case scenario, someone from the project team that is passionate about the opportunity can be part of solving the problem, but this is not always the case. Some practical ideas on where to go with the opportunities / action items from the project team:

  • Continuous Improvement Initiatives – If the opportunity is large or strategic in nature, a continuous improvement initiative may be launched to implement the action item(s). Like any other initiative, it will require adequate sponsorship and resources to be successful.
  • Project Operations – A client may have organizations that are responsible for taking learnings from initiatives and implementing continuous improvement ideas/actions (e.g., project office). The hand-off in this case is generally a presentation of the high priority opportunities and proposed next steps from the project team, and agreement on initiatives the project office should include in the future plans for their area.
  • Product Releases – Many times the improvement opportunities are associated with the product. In this case the opportunities and justification would be presented to members of the team that is leading the next product releases (or managing the on-going support of the product). This is the scenario where it is most likely that a member of the current project team would be part of the implementation of the continuous improvement opportunities.

Upon completion of the feedback process, and hand-off of the recommended next steps, it is the project manager’s responsibility to ensure that the process and supporting documentation is documented and stored in the project files. A summary of the process and recommended next steps will become part of the final project report. The supporting details should become part of the documents archived in the project files. This becomes a valuable asset for use by members of the project office or future project teams.

7 Good Practices for an Effective Lessons Learned Process

  1. Timing – The lessons learned session can be performed at the end of the project, or at the end of major milestones/project phases (retrospective at the end of each sprint in the Agile world).
  2. Guided Discussion – Attempt to “guide” the discussion through the various aspects of the project in an organized manner. This could be based upon project phases, product categories, or functional areas. Generally if the discussion is “guided” (vs. randomly generated), the discussion is more organized and more likely to cover all aspects of the project.
  3. Organizing Improvement Ideas – Using a tool or physical representation on the wall, re-organize the improvement ideas into groupings. The re-organization process helps the team better visualize the appropriate next steps required to implement improvement ideas.
  4. Accountability – Someone is assigned accountability and responsibility for ensuring that something happens with the next steps recommended by the project teams. This accountability generally resides in the Project Office (project delivery opportunities) or the Product Maintenance teams (product improvement opportunities).
  5. Impartial Facilitation – To be an effective facilitator, engaging the group and guiding the discussion, it is best to have not been intimately involved in the project. As the project manager it seems natural to facilitate the lessons learned discussions, however that limits your ability to contribute as a participant. Consider engaging an experienced facilitator that has not been actively involved in the project to facilitate the meeting. The facilitator should be provided some level of background on the project (e.g., summary of project closure surveys) to help them better guide the discussion.
  6. Targeted Discussions – Often times it makes sense to break the groups into multiple sessions to focus on specific topics (e.g., components/phase of the project). One caution with this approach is to make sure the discussions are not so focused that you lose the overall cross-functional nature of the lessons learned process.
  7. Meeting Length – Lessons learned meetings that are too long tend to lose energy and focus by the end of the session. Therefore, you have high quality feedback around improvement opportunities and limited direction in terms of what to do about it (action items and assignments). To address this issue it is often helpful to break the lessons learned into two meetings: Meeting #1 = Capture, group & prioritize improvement ideas, and Meeting #2 = Identify & assign action items.

 

Steve is the Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. He has 25  years of project management and technical leadership roles, and has developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. Steve recently transferred to the North Carolina Chapter of PMI from the Dayton Ohio PMI Chapter.  Connect with him on Twitter and check out his blog!

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2 thoughts on “An Effective Lessons Learned Process

  1. […] for several weeks.  Steve Hart kicked off this series of guests posts with a wonderful piece on lessons learned and this week Lyndsay Chaffee brings another excellent post…The Art of List Making.  I am […]

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