Why Lessons Learned Programmes Don’t Work


Budgetary battles are raging across the US Department of Defence and every service and agency desperately rounds its soapboxes, sacred idols and hobby-horses into a defense circle…it’s a desperate, no holds barred struggle for the survival of the most precious as opposed perhaps to the most needed. Unsurprisingly, this results in a steady dribble of pro/con article on the various issues or perceived issues. This one struck a chord as the five stated reasons resounded from my years in the lesson learned field…you’ll need to read the artcile itself to see that author’s take on such ‘initiatives’…

Five Reasons to Boycott the Air Force’s Savings Initiative : John Q. Public.

1. Your Time is Too Important.  The lessons learned programme may be more form than function i.e. regardless of best intentions, hopes, dreams and aspirations, it does not have a clear and effective method of initiating and embedding the behavioural change that heralds the ‘lesson learned. In this is the case and sadly, so many of them and other ‘continuous improvement’ programmes are, then your time may be better spent contributing to the organisation in another way, possibly as simple as just doing your day job to the best of your ability, and fostering a local climate for change in improvement around your immediate work area.

2. Your Participation Will Harm the Air Force’s Credibility. Or whichever organisation you represent…there are few things worse for an organisations credibility than a broadly and publicly promoted programme that visibly does not work…”What? you can’t improve your own improvement programme..?

3. The Program Enables a False Impression. An improvement initiative by its very existence promotes a perception that things must improve. Unless, however, the lessons learned programme is well-designed, well-implemented and well-lead, it is almost always doomed to fail. Once again, some time more would be done to improve the organisation if local change was encouraged and fostered – it is only very rarely that a large scale programme does not result in cookie cutter ‘solutions’ that are inflicted across an organisation and while maybe fixing one problem, create ten more.

4. The Initiative Is Itself Wasteful.  Absolutely and more so if it includes an incentive programme where staff are or may be rewarded for offering suggestions under the guise of initiatives and innovations. Without a good system and excellent leadership, the great risk is that staff will fixate on the reward and dedicate more and more time to dreaming up innovations than just doing their job and resolving issues when they encounter them. Moreover, just because something is called an initiative, does not mean that it is: in fact, the more strident the initiative narrative, the less likely the programme is to be innovative and more likely it is to be just another bureaucratically-inflicted drag-producing waste of time and resources.

5. There’s no reason to associate oneself needlessly with failure. Yes, sad but true. Despite all the good intentions, if the programme is tainted – and let’s face it, most improvement initiatives are even before the ink on the initiating directive dries – then why flog a dead horse or allow it to undermine by association those things that do work.

Don’t get me wrong…I am dedicated to lessons learned concepts and practices (I hope so after all these years!)  however initiating and embedding change in even a small organisation is not a simple thing and nowhere as simple as the loudest advocates might, in their simplistic ignorance, have us believe. Like any programme seeking to change a status quo, it must first understand the environment in which it will be conducted, who the people are (outside of the Borg, there is rarely any single collective group of ‘the people’), what shapes and influences them, what their hopes, dreams and aspirations are, and it must really understand how the organisation actually works (as opposed to what has been chiselled into process and procedure files.

So, when the innovation initiative evangelists coming knockin’, just think carefully about what they are really selling…

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