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Handbook 11-33
June 2011

Chapter 1. Why a Lessons Learned Program?

Why does an organization need a lessons learned (LL) capability? Before we discuss that, it is important to understand what is a "lesson" and what is a "lesson learned." A lesson is knowledge or understanding gained by experience. The experience may be positive (a best practice), as in a successful test, mission, exercise, or workshop, or negative, as in a mishap or failure. Successes and failures are both considered sources of lessons. A lesson must be significant in that it has a real or assumed impact on everyday operations. It must be valid in that it is factually and technically correct; applicable in that it identifies a specific design, process, or decision; and it reduces or eliminates the potential for failures and mishaps or reinforces a positive result. Basically, it is the knowledge acquired from an observation or an adverse experience that causes a worker or an organization to improve.

A lesson is an LL when you can measure a change in behavior. Obviously, this change in behavior needs to be of a positive nature that improves performance. The U.S. Army, with over 25 years of focused LL experience and one of the world's leaders in experiential learning, still struggles with actually "learning" lessons once identified. Even though there are many understandable reasons for this, you cannot give up. Other organizations complain that once you identify a lesson, it ends up in some database and you quickly forget it. The irritation of every LL specialist is seeing important lessons collected and never being shared or resolved. This takes time and effort and, in most instances, money. Often there is no obvious "owner" of the lesson identified, and there is rarely a system set up to resolve the issue and implement corrective actions.

Do not be discouraged. There are some very sound reasons why your organization needs an LL capability that can evolve into an effective program. Here are just a few:

  • It saves time by providing a central location for efficient searches of valuable LL information.
  • It helps reduce or avoid costs by providing information on success stories that you may be able to implement or mistakes that you may be able to avoid.
  • You can expand your information network by providing information-sharing opportunities by connecting with other sites, "experts," or people doing similar work.
  • Most importantly, it can reduce the risk of repeated mistakes and improve the chance that success is continual.

Once you have decided that an LL program is what you want to implement, consider the following points:

  • Secure executive and leadership "buy-in."
  • Avoid the "evaluation or inspection" tag.
  • Push best practices out.
  • Start small, then grow slowly.
  • Show that the process can bring change.

These are also some advantages to capturing project lessons and turning them into knowledge:

  • To improve project management processes.
  • To improve management decision making (develop new strategies).
  • To improve personnel performance.
  • To increase organizational knowledge.
  • To save lives and resources (money, supplies, time).

"[ It is estimated] that Fortune 500 companies lose $31.5 billion each year because they don't share knowledge."

- "20/20 Foresight," PM Network, September 2004

As mentioned in the foreword of this document, there is one important implication that is critical to understand before implementing any LL program. This implication involves the "culture" or attitude of your organization. Is your organization willing to openly discuss its mistakes, and is it willing to share those mistakes across organizational lines to make everyone better? If not, it will be very difficult to implement an effective LL program. If you are willing to share those mistakes, can you do so in an atmosphere that avoids direct blame on those willing to bring problems forward? You must be able to do this to be a learning organization that facilitates knowledge sharing. Within some cultures, this is very difficult to do. The act of "saving face" precludes individuals from admitting their mistakes. However, some armies have successfully overcome this cultural difference after working with the U.S. military and understanding the importance of learning from their past. Again, being able to self-examine and self-criticize in an atmosphere where everyone can avoid blame is essential for honest and open discussion. This is an essential precondition for an effective LL program.

The LL program can be a linking mechanism that connects existing LL initiatives, a series of tools that facilitate learning and information transfer, and a broad network of individuals who contribute to the sharing process. It has the potential to be a multifaceted initiative that uses information technologies to link LL programs, rapidly transfer time-critical LL information to key points of contact, and provide access to pertinent information available outside of the organization.

Every project your agency undertakes demands substantial concentration and focus, creativity in problem solving, and a wide range of practical skills. However, unless your agency makes a specific effort to retain the knowledge and experience learned on one project, much of the value will be lost. Establishing an LL process will help your agency learn from its mistakes and apply new knowledge and experience to other projects. Activities are a routine part of life, allowing us to build up and share our experience as human beings, thus leading us to LL.

In the military context, LL are a natural product of operations, training, and exercises and, indeed, any routine work. During the course of our activities, most of us will recognize easier, more efficient ways of doing things, problems that are avoidable, or issues we can prevent our colleagues and successors from suffering from. The LL process is simply the process of trying to ensure that you repeat good practices or that the same problem does not occur again.

Although observations are the first building blocks of the process and initial identification of a good or bad practice or event, an organization generally has topics it wants to focus on or issues it has determined are problematic. Each of these issues requires a determined method to collect information that can be subject to further analysis. Analysis results in the development of lessons, best practices, and recommendations for corrective actions to help resolve the issue. To learn a lesson, you will need recommendations to lead you to the work that will help resolve and implement the lesson. Figure 1-1 provides the terms and definitions that will be used throughout this handbook.

Figure 1-1. Definitions

Following is a brief explanation of the functions that are important to any viable LL program. These functions will be explained in greater detail in Chapter 2.


You must first have the ability to collect information on specific topics or issues of interest. There are many ways to do this. Information can be "pulled" into the process through direct collection efforts or it can be "pushed" into the process by organizations, units, and individuals from the bottom up. This information is usually unrefined observations requiring additional analysis. You can accomplish collection through direct and indirect methods and run a full range of processes from answering data calls in support of a request for information, to formal collections involving well-developed questionnaires, to a team of experts brought together to specifically gather further information for analysis. Different techniques and tools for collection include direct observation, in-person interviews, surveys, database submissions by participants, data and database mining, and document capturing.

A good way to accelerate an LL collection effort is to motivate individual and organizational behavior using a "market strategy." A market strategy treats the exchange of information as a tangible transaction between someone who has information and someone who needs the information. In the commercial world, this equates to linking a buyer and a seller with currency exchange based on the value of the product or service. In an information-exchange market, the dynamic is the same, but the "currency" involved is usually not cash.


The transformation of an observation to lesson identified occurs when the analysis reveals the root causes of the problem and identifies the appropriate remedial action or corrective action. Analysis typically answers the "who, what, when, where, and why" to identify the root causes of the problem or success. Analysis results in lessons that lead to recommendations, which ultimately enhance organization performance once implemented. Thorough analysis, when done properly, is one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of the LL process.


The sharing of lessons in and between organizations ensures everyone benefits from the knowledge gained. Lessons are shared through many venues: briefings, bulletins, reports, e-mails, websites, database entries, etc. Sharing lessons and making them available to everyone should be the primary goal of a good LL program. It can potentially reduce risk, improve efficiency, and enhance the cost effectiveness of processes and operations. Sharing of data between LL professionals, historians, and other learning organizations is also encouraged. The guiding principle in executing a sharing strategy is to get the right information to the right person at the right time. While conducting shared activities using different approaches, it is imperative to make sure we disseminate accurate information. The next and sometimes more difficult challenge is to have a means to rapidly get the information to those who need it the most to leverage the power of this information by reducing organizational obstruction to the dissemination of knowledge.


The archive function is a broad term that encompasses several required capabilities that most LL programs desire. The ability to archive information and manage records, both print and electronic, allows access to them at a future date. To accomplish this task, develop digital repositories (called digital libraries or archives) to store information, facilitate the historical preservation of information, and allow users to conduct research. It should provide a logical system for organizing information that is easily retrievable and provided to any requestor. Powerful search engines are required that permit rapid, user-friendly searches. If required, repositories should have the capability to store and guard classified, sensitive or proprietary, and unclassified data. Understand that the archive function needs to become and remain an ongoing process or the repository will soon die of its own weight and growing irrelevance.


The most challenging component of any LL program is establishing a process to legitimately resolve issues once analysis is completed and as early and quickly in the process as possible. Whether or not the LL program has responsibility for the issues-resolution process, the organization's ability to change behavior by implementing a lesson is ineffective unless that change can be observed and a determination made that the lesson is learned. In other words, the corrective actions have enhanced performance. To do this requires a deliberate process to commit resources, make decisions, implement those decisions, and observe the results. If the process is cumbersome and too difficult, expect the results to be less than optimal. The first objective is to handle the corrective action at the lowest level possible. The issues that rise to the next level of attention are those that units or organizations are unable to correct internally. They are issues that require outside assistance to correct or assistance from external sources.


There are several ways to determine if the LL program is effective. Any LL program evaluates the expenditure of resources against the desired results. This is difficult to determine through quantitative analysis. However, some ways to evaluate the effectiveness of an LL program may validate and justify its continued resourcing. Assessment of LL effectiveness can be broken into several components: organization behavior, organization or unit performance, and mission effectiveness. Each of these techniques are ways to determine if your program is effective.

By reading this handbook, you have taken the right step in establishing an LL program. Additional LL references and contact information are located in Appendix D should you need further assistance.


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