Sharing knowledge by video – – a firefighting example

The US Wildfire community is an area where Knowledge Management and Lesson Learning has been eagerly embraced, including the use of video.

The need for Knowledge Management and Lesson Learning is most obvious where the consequences of not learning are most extreme. Fire-fighting is a prime example of this – the consequences of failing to learn can be fatal, and  fire fighters were early adopters of KM. This includes the people who fight the ever-increasing numbers of grass fires and forest fires, known as Wildland fires.

The history of lesson learning in the Wildfire community is shown in the video below, including the decision after a major tragedy in 1994 to set up a lesson learned centre to cover wildfire response across the whole of the USA.

The increase in wildland fires in the 21st century made it obvious to all concerned that the fire services needed to learn quickly, and the Wildland Lessons Learned center began to introduce a number of activities, such as the introduction of After Action reviews, and collecting lessons from across the whole of the USA. A national wildfire “corporate university” is planned, of which the Lesson Learned center will form a part.

The wildfire lessons center can be found here, and this website includes lesson learned reports from various fires, online discussions, a blog (careful – some of the pictures of chainsaw incidents are a bit gruesome), a podcast, a set of resources such as recent advances in fire practice, a searchable incident database, a directory of members, and the ability to share individual lessons quickly. This is a real online community of practice.

Many of the lessons collected from fires are available as short videos published on the Wildland Lessons Center youtube channel and available to firefighters on handheld devices. An example lesson video is shown below, sharing lessons from a particular fire, and speaking directly to the firefighter, asking them to imagine themselves in a particular situation. See this example below from the “close call” deployment of a fire shelter during the Ahorn fire in 2011, which includes material recorded from people actually caught up in the situation.

Sometimes lessons can be drawn from multiple incidents, and combined into guidance. Chainsaw refueling operations are a continual risk during tree felling to manage forest fires, as chainsaw fuel tanks can become pressurised, spraying the operator with gasoline when the tank is opened (the last thing you want in the middle of a fire). Lessons from these incidents have been combined into the instructional video below.

This video library is a powerful resource, with a very serious aim – to save lives in future US Wildland fires. 

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Lesson learning at NASA – more details

NASA has a well-developed Lesson Learning system – here are more details.

Image from Wikimedia commons

I blogged recently about lesson learning at NASA, based on a report from a few years ago, and observing that the NASA LLIS system seemed to be a passive database where lessons were left until someone came looking.

As a result of this post I was invited to join a NASA webinar on lesson learning, which you can review here, and which provides a more up to date overview of the NASA approach to lesson learning. Here are my take-aways (and thank you Barbara for opportunity to attend).

Each NASA project is required to conduct lessons capture meetings, which they call “Pause and Learn”.  These Pause and Learn meetings generally use an external facilitator.  Lessons are entered into LLIS in a standard template, which contains the following sections:

  • Subject 
  • Driving Event 
  • Lesson(s) Learned 
  • Recommendation(s) (there is some variation in the way that Recommendations are differentiated from Lessons)
  • Evidence of Recurrence Control Effectiveness

Although LLIS is essentially a passive database, there is an external process to control the re-occurrence of lessons, and many lessons seem to be referenced or referred to in standards and guidance.  However even when the lesson has been referenced in standards it still remains in the database, and LLIS contains lessons all the way back to the Apollo program.  I submitted a question to the webinar about how NASA deals with the archival of embedded, obsolete or duplicate lessons, but this was not one of the questions selected for discussion.

Some parts of NASA take the lesson management process further. Dr Jennifer Stevens, the Chief Knowledge integrator of the Marshall Space Flight Center, described the work of the distilling team, who look through the database of lessons and distill out the common factors and underlying issues which need correction. They see lessons as an immediate feedback system from operations, and they compartmentalise and group lessons until they can identify a corrective action; often updating a policy or guidance document as a result. Some lessons, which they can’t act on immediately, go into what they call a Stewpot, where they look for trends over time. A lesson, or type of lesson, which is seen many times is indicative of some sort of systemic or cultural issue which may merit action.

Projects are NASA are required to create a Knowledge Management plan, which they refer to as a Lesson Learning Plan, as described by Barbara Fillip, KM lead at Goddard Space Flight Center. This plan documents:

  • How the project intends to learn from others
  • How the project intends to learn through its lifecycle
  • How the project will share lessons with others.
The plan is built on a basic templates of 3 pages, one for each section, and there is no requirement for a planning meeting. Each project completes the plan in their own way. This is similar to the Knoco KM plan – drop me a message if you want a copy of our free KM plan template.

A few more snippets I picked up:

NASA, in their Pause and learn sessions, use “We” language rather than “They” language. The conversation is all about what WE did, and what WE should do, rather than what THEY did and how THEY need to fix it.

A motto they use to promote Learning before doing is “Get smart before you start”.

NASA do not refer to success and failure in their Lesson Learning system – they talk about Events. An Event is what happened – a Mistake or Failure or Success is just a label we put onto events.  NASA seeks to learn from all events.

In conclusion, the NASA lesson learning system is as well-developed Level 2 system, and lessons are used to systematically drive change. Although LLIS does not have seem to have the functionality to automate this driving of change, there are enough resources, such as the Distillation team, to be able to do this manually.

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Lesson learning roles in the RCAF

Roles and Governance are often overlooked elements of KM. Here is a great example of a set of roles and accountabilities for Lesson learning within the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The example is taken from a web page dated 2015 called “Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre, Analysis and Lessons Learned“.

The RCAF have the following roles and accountabilities, shown in the diagram to the right, and described below:

  • A senior sponsor, known as the Lessons Learned Command Authority – this is actually the Commander of the RCAF, and is accountable to the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff for implementing and overseeing the Lesson Learned Programme. Note that the Chief of Defence Staff requires the RCAF to establish processes that add value to the existing body of knowledge, or attempt to correct deficiencies in concepts, policy, doctrine, training, equipment or organizations, and the Lessons Learned Programme is one response to this requirement.
  • A delegated customer/custodian for the Lesson learned program known as the “Lesson Learned programme Authority”. This is the Deputy Commander, who is responsible for all Air Lessons Learned matters, including maintenance and periodic review of the programme. 
  • A leader for the Lesson Learned program, called the Lessons-Learned Technical Authority. This is the Commanding Officer of the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre, who reports to the Lesson Learned Programme Authority for lessons-learned matters, and who is responsible for executing all aspects of the programme with the help of a dedicated Analysis and Lesson Learned team.
  • Clear accountabilities for the leaders of the various divisions in their roles as Lessons Learned Operational Authorities, to effectively operationalize and implement the programme within their command areas of responsibility.
  • Each of these appoint a Lessons Learned point of contact to coordinate the Lessons Learned activities and functions for their organizations as well as to address issues that have been forwarded along the chain of command.
  • Wing Lessons-Learned Officers embedded in the organisation at wing and formation levels, who provide Lesson learning advice to the wing commander related to missions and mission-support activities.
  • Unit Lessons-Learned Officers within the RCAF units who coordinate the documentation and communication of what has been learned during daily activities; liaising directly with their relevant Wing Lessons-Learned Officer. These are like the Lesson Learned  Integrators in the US Army.
You can see how accountability for lesson learning comes down the chain of command (the red boxes in the diagram) from the RCAF Commander right down to Unit level, and how enabling and supporting roles are created at many levels – the LL Programme, the Divisional points of contact, the Wing LLOs and the Unit LLOs.

The principle of delegated accountability down the line management chain enabled by supporting resources is a good one, which can be applied in many organisational setting.

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