How can we learn lessons when every project is different?

This is another one to add to the “Common Knowledge Management Objections” list, and it’s worth thinking in advance what your counter-argument might be.

It’s a push-back you hear quite often in project organisations:

“We can’t do Knowledge Management, especially lessons learned, as all our projects are different”.

I last herd this from a technology company, and by saying “every project is different”, they mean that “every project has a different client, different product, different technical specifications”.

To some extent, they are correct, and this project variation reduces some of the impact of lesson learning. Certainly lessons add the most value when projects are the most similar. But even when projects change, learning still adds value.

Firstly, even on those technology projects, the process will be the same. 

The process of building and understanding the client requirements, choosing and forming the team, selecting and managing sub contractors, balancing the innovation against the risk, communicating within the team, keeping the client requirements always in mind, managing quality, managing cost, managing time, managing expectations, managing risk, and so on.

There is a huge amount of learning to be done about the process of a project, even when the tasks are different.

Secondly, the other common factor for this technology company was that every project was a variant on their existing product. 

They learned a lot about the way the product worked, and the technology behind the product, with every new project. If this additional knowledge was not captured, then they would have to rediscover it anew every time.  If the knowledge is captured, then each project is an exploration into the technology, and builds the company understanding of the technology so that new products can be developed in future.

So even if every project is different, every project can still be a learning opportunity. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

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. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Learning by Watching

There is only a certain amount you can learn by reading. Sometimes you have to go and see.

With complex knowledge, there is more going on that can ever be documented, and (if it’s possible) the best way to learn is to go and see for yourself. Toyota call this “Genchi Genbutsu” – an approach they apply to problem solving. Wikipedia has this story –

“Taiichi Ohno, creator of the Toyota Production System is credited, perhaps apocryphally, with taking new graduates to the shopfloor and drawing a chalk circle on the floor. The graduate would be told to stand in the circle, observe and note what he saw. When Ohno returned he would check; if the graduate had not seen enough he would be asked to keep observing. Ohno was trying to imprint upon his future engineers that the only way to truly understand what happens on the shop floor was to go there”.

In Knowledge Management, these Knowledge Visits have a place in knowledge transfer. If you really want to learn from something complex and truly understand what happens, then go and see and talk to the people who are involved.

See for example the Observer Programme organised by the International Olympic Committee as part of their Knowledge Management framework.

This article describes how more than 100 staff from the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games visited and observed the Rio 2016 Olympics.

IOC’s Observer Programme, which is an integral element of the Olympic Games Knowledge Management, represents a key component of the knowledge transfer process, providing a unique opportunity to live, learn and experience real operations to future hosts, guided by key personnel of Rio Organizing Committee or IOC. 

POCOG will attend the total of seventy-six programmes, including Airport Operations, Look of the Games, Accreditation, Medical Services, Venue Management, Ticketing, Venue Energy, and Transport. 

SEO, Min-jung, the Head of Doping Control Team said, “After closely observing Rio Games, I now know what to do for PyeongChang 2018.” She added, “I can expect what needs to be done to give athletes absolute confidence in the doping control system and uphold the integrity of Olympics and Paralympics Games.” 

POCOG Spokesperson SUNG, Baik-you commented, “Thanks to invaluable IOC Observer Programme, POCOG staffs are here to watch and learn, and every moment and experience from airport arrival to competition venue visit will be a learning experience for PyeongChang 2018.”

Sometimes, in cases like this, you just have to go and see in order to learn.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Why do some organisations just not want to learn?

Having knowledge, and doing something with that knowledge, are two different things. There is often a gap between knowing and doing.

 
Why do you get teams or organisations that just don’t want to learn?

Take the example of one company, with dysfunctional project management practices. They have had several external audits which tell them that their practices are dysfunctional, and that they need to introduce proper planning, proper communication, and proper risk management, and yet they don’t change. They continue as before, and their projects are delivered late and over budget.

Why?

They have the knowledge, but they don’t take the action.

This, of course, is the phenomenon addressed by the well known book “the Knowing-Doing Gap“, which describes several reasons by teams and organisations will not learn, including the following:

  1. They haven’t made a close enough link between knowledge and action.  They think that gaining knowledge, for example through the external audits mentioned above, is sufficient in itself. Certainly the company we studied had not committed to taking action as a result of the audit.   
  2. “The way we have always done things” is a very hard habit to break.   Much work is done through habit, and those habits have been built up and reinforced over the years, without being challenged.  New knowledge challenges old knowledge and old habits, and old habits die hard (the curse of prior knowledge)
  3. They are disempowered. I argued recently that although knowledge management can support empowerment, it requires empowerment in the first place. Teams which are disempowered cannot learn.   
  4. They understand the how, but they don’t understand the why. They may have imported tools and techniques and processes, but they don’t understand the philosophy behind them, and so they cannot make them work.   
You can you lead a company to knowledge, but you can’t make it learn. 
 To become a learning organisation requires more than just effective knowledge management, it requires a commitment to learning and a commitment to change.
The organisation must accept that if knowledge is to add any value, then it must lead to action. It must accept that that action may often challenge the status quo, and will frequently the way things are already done.

They must not just accept this, they must welcome it, and must empower the teams and individuals within the organisation to take action on their own learning.  And they must also realise that when the organisation adopts  new techniques and new approaches, they have to understand the philosophy behind them, as well as the practices themselves.

Only though this approach, can an organisation hope to become a learning organisation.

View Original Source Here.

The importance of Reflection in KM

We don’t learn by doing, we learn by reflecting on doing, which is why your KM program should include reflective processes.

Kolb learning cycle. Publ;ic domain image from wikipedia

There is a popular quote on the Internet, often attributed to John Dewey, that “We do not learn from an experience … We learn from reflecting on an experience“. It probably isn’t from Dewey, although it is a summarisation of Dewey’s teaching, but it does make the point that no matter how broad your experience, it doesn’t mean you have leared anything.

Let’s match that with another Internet quote, attributed to Paul Shoemaker “Experience is inevitable, Learning is not“. Without reflection, and without change as a result of that reflection, nothing has been learned no matter how many experiences you have.

“Observation and Reflection” is also a part of the Kolb learning cycle, shown here, which is a well-established model for how individuals learn.

Knowledge Management is not so much about Individual learning as about Organisational Learning and Team Learning, but reflection is just as important in the KM context. Reflection  needs to be introduced to work practice through the introduction of reflective processes such as the following:

  • Introducing After Action Review as a reflective team process, to allow teams to reflect on, and collectively learn from, actions and activities;
  • Introducing Retrospect as a reflective team process, to allow teams to reflect on, and collectively learn from, projects and project phases;
  • Introducing processes such as Knowledge Exchange to allow members of a Community of Practice to reflect on, and share, their practice;
  • Introducing processes such as knowledge interviews to guide experts through structured reflection on their own experience, and top make this public for others.

It is only through introducing reflective processes such as these, and then acting on the new knowledge gained, that your organisation will stop just Experiencing, and start Learning.

View Original Source Here.

Three levels of Lesson Learning

Here are a couple of reprised blog posts from 5 years ago, covering the topic of lesson learning, and presenting 3 potential levels of maturity for a learning system. Most organisations are stuck at level 1.

There are three levels of rigour, or levels of maturity, regarding how Lesson-learning is applied in organisations.

  • The first is to reactively capture and doccument lessons for others to find and read
  • The second is to reactively capture lessons at the end of projects, document them, and as a result make changes to company procedures and practices
  • The third is to proactively hunt lessons from wherever they can be found, and make changes to company procedures and practices so that the lessons are embedded into practice. 

Lesson-learning can be a very powerful way for an organisation to learn, change and adapt, but only if it is approached in a mature way. Level 1, to be honest, will not add much value, and its only when you get to level 2 that Lesson learning really starts to make a difference.

Let’s look at those levels in more detail.

Level 1

Level 1  is to reactively capture lessons at the end of projects, and document them so that others can learn. Lessons are stored somewhere, and people need to find and read the lesson in order to access the knowledge. There are sub-levels of maturity in level 1, which include

1a) Ad-hoc capture of lessons, often by the project leader, documenting them and storing them in project files with no quality control or validation step. Lessons must therefore be sought by reading project reports, or browsing project files structures

1b)Structured capture of lessons, through lessons identification meetings such as retrospects, documenting and storing the lessons in project files with no quality control or validation step.

1c) Structured capture of lessons, through lessons identification meetings such as retrospects, documenting and storing the lessons in a company-wide system such as a lessons database or a wiki. This often includes a validation step.

1d) Structured capture of lessons, through lessons identification meetings such as retrospects, documenting and storing the lessons in a company-wide system with auto-notification, so that people can self-nominate to receive specific lessons.

Level 2

Level 2 is to reactively capture lessons at the end of projects, document them, and as a result make changes to company procedures and practices so that the lessons are embedded into practice. Here people do not need to read the lesson to access the knowledge, they just need to follow the practice. Again, there are sub-levels of maturity in level 2, which include

2a) Lessons are forwarded (ideally automatically, by a lesson management system) to the relevant expert for information, with the expectation that they will review them and incorporate them into practice.

2b) Lessons include assigned actions for the relevant expert, and are auto-forwarded to the expert for action

2c) As 2b, with the addition that the actions are tracked and reported.

Level 3  is to proactively hunt lessons from wherever they can be found, and make changes to company procedures and practices so that the lessons are embedded into practice.  There are not enough organisations at level 3 to recognise sub-levels, but there are some ways in which Level 3 can operate

3a) Senior managers can identify priority learning areas for the organisation. Projects are given learning objectives – objectives for gathering knowledge and lessons on behalf of the organisation. These may be written into project knowledge management plans. 3b) Learning teams may analyse lessons over a period of months or years to look for the common themes and the underlying trends – the weak signals that operational lessons may mask.

3c) Organisations may deploy specific learning resources (Learning Engineers, Project Historians, etc) into projects or activity, in order to pick up specific learning for the organisation.

I have only really come across level 3 in the military.  For example, see this quote from
Lieutenant-General Paul Newton

The key is to ‘hunt’ not ‘gather’ lessons, apply them rigorously—and only when you have made a change have you really learned a lesson. And it applies to everyone … It is Whole Army business. 

However even level 2 is quite rare. Many organisations have not gone beyond the “document and store” stages of Level 1, and generally have been disappointed by the outcomes.

If you aspire to be a learning organisation, set your sights at levels 2 or 3.

View Original Source Here.

The Substitution test for learning from mistakes

When is a mistake an opportunity for an organisation to learn, and when is it just a human error? There is a test for that.

Image from Wikimedia commons

“Learning from mistakes” is a goal of many lesson learning systems, and with good reason. If an organisation can learn from its mistakes, then it can avoid them in future, and so improve performance.  However many people do not like to learn from mistakes. They feel that examination of mistakes involves blame.

How do we resolve this?
In some ways, blame is important. If people do something deliberately wrong – something they know they should not do, like ignoring an instruction, or taking a shortcut – then they should  be blamed. On the other hand, if people make an honest mistake but are let down by the system they are tying to follow, then they should not be blamed. Instead the system should be improved so that the mistake does not re-occur.
So how do we know if a mistake is blameworthy or not? We can use the Substitution test.

The Substitution Test helps to assess how a peer would have been likely to deal with the situation. Johnston (1995), a human factors specialist and an Aer Lingus training captain, has proposed the substitution test. When faced with an event in which the unsafe acts of a particular individual were clearly implicated, the judges should carry out the following thought experiment. 

Substitute for the person concerned someone coming from the same work area and possessing comparable qualifications and experience. Then ask: ‘In the light of how the events unfolded and were perceived by those involved in real time, is it likely that this new individual would have behaved any differently?’ If the answer is ‘probably not’ then, as Johnston (1996:34) put it, ‘apportioning blame has no material role to play, other than to obscure systemic deficiencies and to blame one of the victims’. 

A useful variant on the substitution test is to ask of the individual’s peers: ‘Given the circumstances that prevailed at the time, could you be sure that you would not have committed the same or a similar type of unsafe act?’ If the answer again is ‘probably not’, then blame and punishment are inappropriate.  

This simple test is very valuable for steering a safe course between Blame and No-Blame, when trying to learn from mistakes.

View Original Source Here.

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