Chain of events: Acquaintance writes email, referencing this blog from APQC.  I respond with a rant, augmented by a couple of acidic twitter messages to release steam.  These rants are posted to my Facebook status line, and results in a brief conversation there with a FB friend – who initially believes I’ve lost my mind.

And now here.  Why here?  I’ve already responded to the acquaintence, and interacted with the FB friend, and overall made my point.  Well, I’m blogging now to establish some measure of permanence to my thoughts.  My apologies then to those two individuals who have already been subjected to my rant.

The APQC blog asked a very reasonable question:  “What’s the Deal with Lessons Learned?”  The author then posits several reasons:

“What is it about capturing and applying lessons learned that so often trips us up and causes us to never get past the “capture” step of the process? Is it that the mistake or error that prompts the lesson is so context-dependent that we think others couldn’t benefit from it and therefore we don’t capture it at all? Or could it be that whatever repository these lessons disappear into is so unorganized that retrieving them in order to apply them is a huge undertaking? Or is it simple communication–in other words, we simply don’t share our lessons learned proactively with those who might benefit from them? Or some combination of the above?”

My answer: E!  None of the above.

My acquaintance works in the Pentagon alongside his command’s “lessons learned” people, and shared that they go in the field, watch exercises, and then let people know where they made they repeated mistakes.  He was asking the same question:  why don’t these programs work as intended?

In organizations where the machinery is larger than the man, where we serve and tend to the machines, where human behavior and decisions are minor aspects of the overall production line – then things like “lessons learned” along with six sigma, Lean, etc., make some sense and have proven results.  The trouble comes when we apply these mechanisms in organizations where the human predominates.

My response is below, slightly edited, but retaining all the snarkiness.  I should add that I was responding in the context of military training and operations.  In most organizations, my opinion is strongly against “lessons learned” programs.  

Regarding lessons learned…  Let’s think about this for a moment.  The underlying presumption regarding “lessons learned” is that what worked before, will work again – and the context around the new situation will not differ enough to make the “lesson” insufficient to the new challenge.  This is arrogant, demonstrably false and dangerous.

First off, when gathering these lessons, we interview people regarding their decisions.  Trouble is, people don’t know how they make decisions.  Not truly, they fill in gaps of reasoning where they actually went with deep intuition.  Finding hard to explain their intuition, they inaccurately weight other decision variables, dutifully captured by the interviewer.  And the lie is born.
Second, context matters.  It actually matters to consider the situation as it lies, and the application of sterile “lessons” that carry a (now lost) context will result in only random chances of success.  Complexity science reveals the teleological realities – you cannot predict events in complex systems; you can set boundaries, establish attractors and modulators and monitor for patterns.  In addition, these systems are highly sensitive to starting conditions (see Lorenz).  Where do “lessons learned” fit against what we know about context-sensitive complex systems?
Fortunately, no one actually uses lessons learned databases to make decisions.  When you are faced with a challenge, do you turn to the ‘lessons learned’ database, or to a trusted friend who may have faced similar challenges?  The latter is likely true, and you update this friend with your current circumstance so that he can match it against his experience – you both then discuss what may be different this time and the limitations of his experience…and then you learn together.
So what should your colleagues be doing?  Collecting “lessons observed” and distilling principles that may be more universal than the specific lessons – but more importantly, they should enhance the connection of professionals.  Consider the success of Companycommander, where Company commanders are able to collaborate and share experiences in near-real time.  Why is this such a success when the Army for years has had the CALL program?
Given this, which should your colleagues be doing?  Mimicking CALL, or CompanyCommand?
Lessons learned programs don’t work because they don’t align with how we think, how we decide, or even an accurate history of what happened.  Other than that – totally worth the investment.
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