The Lessons Learned Handbook

Emma McCulloch (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 16 August 2011




McCulloch, E. (2011), "The Lessons Learned Handbook", Library Review, Vol. 60 No. 7, pp. 621-624.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Lesson learning and knowledge transfer to inform and enhance future activity is crucial to improve success rates and avoid making repeat mistakes. It is something that we perhaps take for granted, given the innate instinct to learn from experience, but Milton certainly makes you think far more deeply about the ways in which we go about it and, in particular, how we should go about it within a project or organisational environment. The Preface of The Lessons Learned Handbook states that:

[…] the book is written for the project manager, quality manger or senior manager trying to put in place a system for learning from experience, or to improve the system they have.

As manager of a small and newly formed team of innovation developers, I was hopeful that the book would offer valuable guidance that I could readily put into practice.

The book opens by explaining that powerful lessons learned as a toddler gradually result in a shift towards us becoming more open about learning from the experiences of others, as opposed to having to learn from our own actions alone. Putting this premise into an organisational context, Milton outlines the challenges of learning from experience, given that the organisation is typically comprised of many different individuals, activities and processes. Each stage in the lesson learning process is discussed in detail, supplemented by case studies, and aligned with the outcomes of a survey undertaken by the author.

I was initially worried that the references to the survey responses would prove too narrow an approach; I was quickly reassured though to see that Milton presented a theoretical viewpoint, before turning to his survey results to either prove or refute the theory. For example, the lesson learning enablers identified by survey participants strongly back the guidance offered by Milton in Chapter 2. Evidence of this sort is presented throughout the text.

The author's survey suggests that a considerable number of organisations recognise the importance of learning from experience and have a formal lessons learned system in place. However, well intentioned though, one of the two case studies presented in Chapter 1 shows the organisation's lessons learned system was rarely applied while the other highlights barriers to re‐using lessons, even though learned. The failings highlighted by these case studies bolsters Milton's main emphasis throughout the book – that institutionalisation of lessons learned is paramount.

The need for explicit accountability, a consistent identification and reporting methodology and an effective storage and retrieval system for documentation all enhance the ability to maximise upon lessons learned and in applying them. Milton's survey results suggest that failure in these areas is often attributed to culture and time issues. Reading between the lines it is probable that lack of success in this area comes down to money. Senior managers are not making the necessary investment in systems and time, nor are they actively promoting a shift in culture. The result is money being wasted through the repetition of mistakes and limited repeat success. Milton quotes some startling savings made by Shell and BP's Schiehallion Well Team to illustrate just how valuable formalising lessons learned processes can be.

A historical look at approaches to systematic lesson learning, as by early navigators, helps to convey the importance of the ability to learn from the experience of those that have gone before; it could literally result in life or death. At the other end of the severity scale, simple practices like using standardised terminology within a lessons learned programme can help to foster their success. Milton does well to cover an enormous range of considerations, with significantly different levels of effort required to address them.

There is a huge emphasis throughout the text on the need to communicate and apply lessons learned in order to benefit from them and change subsequent behaviours and processes accordingly. Outcomes of a research project, for example, will not make any impact if they are not disseminated beyond the final report and re‐applied in future projects.

If three crucial steps – identification, action and institutionalisation – are not carried out, lesson learning will ultimately fail.

Milton offers best practice guidelines on conducting each of these three steps. Three entire chapters (4, 5 and 6) are dedicated to lesson identification – Principles of lesson identification, Process of lessons identified and Writing down the lessons, respectively. Identification processes such appropriate models of questioning, how to facilitate these processes, quality control and documentation are among the tasks described in the lesson identification phase. Anecdotes and case studies from the oil industry, the military and a range of other fields are presented to accompany the guidance given.

Chapters 7‐9 look at translating lessons learned into actions and updating processes under the headings Taking action, Process ownership and process update and Ensuring lessons and updated processes are re‐applied. Here, Milton emphasises the need to institutionalise a lesson learned by “implementing the change”. His suggestions include disseminating via a newsletter or blog, targeting people via RSS, providing training and communicating effectively with those responsible for implementing change. A practically focused Chapter 9 then adds weight to Milton's advice by explaining in some more detail exactly how this might be done. He recommends activities such as peer review and scenario planning.

Chapter 10 – On technology – reminds us that technology will only support the processes implemented or facilitate their formalisation; it will not present a solution to the practice of identifying lessons and learning from them.

Sharing, seeking and governance of lesson learning are covered within the next two chapters (11 and 12) and do well to offer a wealth of practical advice including the benefits of communities of practice, peer assist and baton passing. The importance of backing from senior management is again emphasised in relation to governance, since without it motivation and prioritisation will not be bolstered.

Two contributors – Johnny Martin and Linda Davies – then offer insights to their own personal experiences in lesson learning. Chapter 13 by Martin recounts his safety investigations while working for BP in which lesson learning was crucial in avoiding repeat breaches of best practice. Davies then presents the challenges, in Chapter 14, of maximising on the experiences encountered within the global company Mars Information Services which boasts six distinct business segments.

Milton presents a short interview with Peter Kemper next, who is an expert in the use of wikis as a lesson learning tool of value within the organisational context. He explains that the use of the wiki platform makes the lessons learning process less formal, less structured and more open to contributions from a wider population, meaning that there is a sense of shared responsibility for recording and re‐using lessons learned. Kemper also states that the wiki should be “self‐correcting”. By this, he means that others in the organisation should quickly identify any errors input to the system […] this is all well and good in theory but in reality it surely requires another set of processes and workflows. Is this effectively adding another onerous layer to the recording of lessons learned? Might it put some individuals off contributing their findings? Kemper explains that the linkage between wiki content and process owners is still some way off and proposes that tagging might be used to improve retrieval. The lack of robustness worries me here and it seems that there is a danger that technology may be heralded as more of a solution than a mere step within a far bigger process.

The book's closing chapter, 16, lists 100 ways in which not to learn lessons. Although it is a helpful insight to potential pitfalls, and echoes the importance of learning from others, this long list may prove off‐putting to the reader who has become enthused and motivated by the preceding chapters. The closing chapter, for me, was overwhelming and brought a feeling of negativity. Although amusing in parts, it warns against so many practices it made me feel that broaching the area for local purposes was an enormous task fraught with the possibility of failure. A better way of presenting the list would perhaps have been to categorise the 100 points more broadly so that the reader was still made aware of the key areas to watch out for but without gaining the impression that are facing such an uphill struggle to introduced a formal system of recognising lessons learned and institutionalising such learning for the future good of the organisation. Some tips border on the ridiculous and could be removed altogether. For example, '30. Document your lessons at the back of individual project reports. That way people cannot find them without reading the reports from every single project', followed by, '31. And if you can hide them on the library shelf, even better'. This did amuse me but all in all, the long list presented definitely left me feeling a little deflated.

Overall, the book is a thought provoking read and does well to encourage the reader to take better advantage of lessons learned. The real importance of action and formalisation is made all the more memorable by the informative case studies and survey responses. The book is well laid out, clear in its purpose and language and chapters follow a logical progression. Useful cross referencing is included throughout for readers who wish to explore in more detail the ideas introduced in the earlier chapters, although references to external sources are a little scant. I would recommend the text in particular to those who are working in a research project environment or who are involved in reviewing business processes within an organisation.

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