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How to Implement Lessons Learned on Projects

lessons-learntWell done. You had a project lessons learned meeting. You captured lots of ideas for improvements and noted down all the things that didn’t work so well. Genius. Your future projects will be so much better for that 2-hour session. Or will they?

In reality, they probably won’t. You’ll forget. Your team will forget. You’ll be too busy to implement the lessons. Your clients won’t pay you for the hours it takes to find those notes and put them into practice. The key person on the team moves to a new role. You can’t find the notes because they’ve been archived.

We all know that lessons learned are a great idea. But how many of the lessons captured as organisational knowledge on your projects are actually used? I bet not many. It’s time to sort that out.

Capture as you go

As I write in my book, Customer-Centric Project Management, it’s much better to work on the basis of continual process improvement. You want to be capturing lessons learned on a regular schedule: waiting until the end of the project is no help to anyone because:

  • You’ll have forgotten half the important lessons
  • You’ll not be able to make changes to help that customer on that project.

Put lessons learned on your standard team meeting agenda and ask people for their thoughts on a routine basis. I think this works better than expecting team members to actively think, “That’s a good idea, I’ll record that in the lessons learned database or drop my manager an email about it.” Maybe one day you’ll have the culture of continuous improvement so embedded that it will be natural for the team to behave like that, but let’s not assume it’s going to work like that from the start.

Remind the team that you’ll be asking for their lessons and process improvement suggestions so that they come to the meetings prepared.

Improve as you go

Implement these improvements as you go. There’s no need to wait until your next project to do things differently. You can do them differently today. Update those template documents, change the way you communicate with stakeholders, tweak your reports until they are perfect for your sponsor, amend that process so that it works first time, every time.

Process change is hard, especially when you are busy doing the actual project. But if you don’t do it today, you probably won’t have the inclination to put those lessons into practice in the future. When you are setting up a new project and working through the initiation phase it always seems more daunting to work in a new way. The improvements you make today to your current project will seem smaller in comparison.

You may need to involve your Project Management Office in order to implement changes. Get them on side with your continuous review process. They will most likely appreciate the feedback and be able to encourage other project managers and their teams to adopt your suggestions too.

Use a wiki

Actually, it doesn’t much matter what technology you use as long as it isn’t meeting minutes. You can’t realistically think that in a few years’ time someone will go through your meeting minutes hoping to find a gem of an idea to improve their projects? They’ll never do that, just as you wouldn’t have the time or inclination today to trawl through the minutes of a project that happened last year.

Invest in a tool that will help you search for relevant lessons. I personally think wikis are great for this but other project management systems or even apps that are designed for note capture may work for you. As long as you can search, categorise the knowledge as it is entered and apply tags to help other people find it again, then it will do.

Train your team

Finally, train your team to look out for lessons. When you see something that isn’t working, lead by example and point it out. Ask them what could be done differently. When you hear someone comment about how something could be better, pounce on the idea and make them responsible for implementing the change.

Celebrate your achievements together and recognise the contributions of those who have suggested improvements that then went on to be both implemented and successful. In a small way this incentivises others to put forward suggestions for improvements as well.

Share your improvement plans with your sponsor and customers too. It’s good for them to be able to see that you are acting on their feedback and that you are continually making improvements for their benefit.

If you manage lessons learned like this, by a process of continual identification and implementation, you’ll find that you don’t miss so much at the end and you gain incremental improvements over the life of your current project.

Building capability for the future

Not all lessons result in the type of information that generates a process change or other change that can be put into practice now. Lessons about procurement or initiation may not be able to be used until the next project goes through those phases.

Create a ‘review lessons’ task as part of first step of every project initiation process. This prompts you to go back through that wiki or lessons learned database and pick out anything that might be relevant. You can also use this as a reminder to talk to your old project team about how they would do it differently. The PMO, if you have one, is another source of information about how you could start this project differently and more successfully.

You can also ask the new project’s sponsor or client about what they have done in the past and how they would like to see it improved this time round.

Start capturing their input early and work towards a project that has a culture of continuous improvement from day 1, starting with a review of the organisational knowledge captured on other projects.

It takes time to embed lessons learned thinking (or customer-centricity, as I call it) but it’s worth it. Project success rates should improve and you should feel more confident that you are delivering a quality service to your stakeholders. Let us know how you get on!

If you have any other tips for implementing lessons learned then share them in the comments.


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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

One comment

  1. Avatar

    I like these points. None of them is going to impose a great burden on the organisation and they all make sense.

    The missing link I have always found in this sort of exercise is how to annotate and retrieve information when the way a project is described might change as people depart and new ones join the organisation or the dominant features of one project are different to those of another. Some common language is required and it is difficult to design one that will survive change and transfer easily between different jobs.

    I am interested in the potential of the Cognitive Edge SenseMaker(TM) method for this. I think it could provide that commonly relevant indexing mechanism.

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