Continuous Improvement: Making the Most of Project Lessons Learned

At the most basic level, project lessons learned are the tangible result of an executed "project review", taking the project experience, in whole or part, and breaking it down into actionable conclusions about what went right, what went wrong, and what could be done better.  But these lessons won't amount to much if they are not properly integrated into an "institutional body of knowledge"  and used for continuous improvement.  Read on for more.

Reviews.  Lessons.  Continuous Improvement.

Every project experience has "lessons" to offer.  These lessons are discovered through the project review process, providing the means by which the project experience can be examined and evaluated to find underlying lessons.  And the overall goal of this process is "continuous improvement" - to utilize the experience gained from one project to benefit future projects and improve project management capabilities.  And, this is all realized through the "lesson learned".

Project lessons exist at two levels - performance lessons and results lessons. Performance lessons encompass the procedures and practices used to plan, manage and execute approved projects. Results lessons encompass the "project" itself and the work effort performed to produce planned results.  The project review is best executed as a standardized management process, providing the basis for how projects are reviewed and how the review results are used and incorporated.  To ensure that all goals can be fully met, standardized  review practices should incorporate the following parameters:

  • Project review timing and triggers (what types of events will lead to review initiation?).
  • Review input requirements (what types of events and circumstances will be reviewed considering project plans, deliverables, activities, tasks, decisions and related variables?).
  • Data collection methodologies (how will review inputs be identified, gathered and organized for review purposes?).
  • Review benchmarks and analysis criteria (forming the basis for "lessons" identification).
  • Lessons learned reporting methodologies (how will identified lessons be produced, documented and incorporated into the "institutional body of knowledge"?).

The temptation is obvious -  the project review is a lot work, and the project is over - so why not just move on?  This may seem logical, but it could also be a big mistake.   Lessons learned are opportunities to minimize mistakes and improve performance capabilities.  Not only do they serve to avoid repetitive mistakes, they also strengthen capabilities, providing opportunities to innovate and take on more risk.  While certain projects may offer fewer "lessons" than others, the project review process can always be scaled to suit project size, value, complexity and "lessons potential" (i.e. smaller, less complex projects can be reviewed in a less formal manner - but they should still be reviewed).  Once a review is triggered, that review should always be conducted in the most productive manner possible. (Also Read:  Performing Project Management Audits)

Getting Started: Finding the Lessons to Be Learned

In order to reach intended goals, every project must be examined for all potential lessons. Continuous improvement depends on multiple perspectives.... i.e. what can be learned from the execution of specific types of projects, and what can be learned from the practice of managing projects regardless of type?  Lessons learned can be discovered from multiple types of data and information, including project review surveys, evaluation of actual project results, interviews with project stakeholders, peer reviews, and performance "self-assessments".  It takes a multitude of data and observation techniques to formulate a tangible basis for lessons learned identification.  

"A picture speaks louder than 1,000 words".  Get an illustrated view of the project review and lessons learned process in our informative infographic: The Road to Continuous Improvement.

At a minimum, any comprehensive project review will look for lessons using the following eight (8) key investigative questions:

  1. Based on actual project results, does it appear that this project was a "good idea"?
  2. What can be learned from how the project was defined?
  3. What can be learned from how the project was planned?
  4. What can be learned from how the project was governed?
  5. What can be learned from how the project was executed?
  6. What can be learned from how the project was monitored and controlled?
  7. What lessons can be learned from how the project team performed?
  8. How will these lessons be used in the future (to keep doing what went right or to fix what went wrong?).

Put Lessons Learned to Good Use

As discussed, the ultimate use of the "project lesson learned" is to achieve continuous improvement.  On an individual basis, projects may be short term initiatives, but on the whole, the need to manage and deliver successful projects is ongoing.  By definition, continuous improvement is an operational imperative - to leverage experience and ensure that each subsequent project can be executed at the highest quality, in less time, at lower cost and with fewer mistakes.  This is not meant to imply that continuous improvement means "mistake free".  Mistakes will be made, particularly, if lessons learned are used to innovate.  It's not about being mistake free.  It's about avoiding the types of mistakes that can be avoided, and not repeating the same types of mistakes over and over again.

The key to project review success is the timely application of identified lessons learned to future projects, practices and related services. This is achieved when key lessons are documented as part of the "institutional body of knowledge" (record of the collective "organizational" project experience), available for reference as time passes and organizational changes occur.  This step provides the required continuity that is a key element of continuous improvement.

On a final note, it's also important to remember that "project lessons" can present themselves at any point in the project lifecycle and not just as part of formal reviews. You may be in the middle of any task, activity, event or decision and realize... "hey, that could have been done better" or "I'll have to remember that for my next project". You can also learn something from observing projects managed by others. Whatever the source, these "spur of the moment" lessons should be immediately noted and documented to be addressed as part of the larger (and more formal) project review process.

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