Lesson learned. Use the “lessons learned” to reduce the chances of failure of a project

lessons learned

With lessons learned, we talk about learning from the mistakes, and not only, of the past.

We could apply infinite proverbs to this statement, but we want to recall only one: “Errare humanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum”

Lesson Learned: the study of Axelos PPM Benchmark

According to the recent study by AXELOS PPM Benchmark, almost half of project managers who rarely (or never) revise projects have faced a project failure in the last 12 months.

On the other hand, only 34% of those who always (or almost always) review the project, have experienced a failure during the last year.

These results give further importance to the argument that “lesson learned” from past projects should be an integral part of project management.

So why is this aspect so often overlooked?

Learning from past projects and activities should be a continuous effort throughout the project life cycle.

This mentality should be strongly encouraged by the project manager right from the beginning.

Whether the lessons learned are used to prepare ongoing projects, or used to identify any improvement within the project, learning from the failures or successes of past projects becomes a very important element.

Not considering what went wrong during a project is simply stupid. It means to be in a position where we will repeat the same mistakes.

On the contrary, even not to highlight the successes of a project and how these have been achieved is a mistake.

You lose the opportunity to implement good processes and best practices that can contribute to the successful completion of an existing or future job.

In short, the lessons learned are documented information that reflects both the positive as well as negative experiences of a project.

They represent the organization’s commitment to excellence in project management.

For the project manager, it is an opportunity to learn from the real experiences of others.

The process of learning occurs during and at the end of each project, whether short or complex.

The best way is to hold a session to identify the lessons learned.

It should be conducted at different times according to the critical issues and complexity of the project.

The more complex the project, the more the sessions should be.

If you wait until the end of the project, especially if it is long and complex, you could lose some key points.

Project managers, team members and stakeholders can all be interested in reviewing the lessons learned and making decisions about how to use the acquired knowledge.

How does the process of lessons learned work

The process of collecting and evaluating lessons learned includes the five following steps:

  • Identification;
  • Documentation;
  • Analysis;
  • Archiving;
  • Recovery.

1) Identification of lessons learned

This first phase consists in identifying comments and recommendations that could be useful for future projects.

The project manager, or the person responsible for data collection, should give all project’s collaborators, and possibly also stakeholders, a project survey.

The project survey will help identify input and lessons learned.

Thanks to the survey, all the points of view and the experiences will be collected.

Three key questions should be included in the survey:

  1. What went well;
  2. What went wrong;
  3. What should be improved.

2) Documentation of lessons learned

The second step in the lessons learned process is to document and share the results.

After the lessons learned have been acquired, they should be reported to all project stakeholders.

The final report must be kept and stored together with all the project documentation.

lessons learned

This report should give an overview of how the process of lessons learned works.

It must also contain a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the project as well as the recommendations for the future.

3) Lessons learned analysis

The third phase of the process consists of analyzing and organizing the lessons learned in order to apply the results.

Information is shared with other team members during organizational meetings.

As a result of the lessons learned, improvements in the project management process or training needs are often identified.

4) Archive the lessons learned

The documents on the lessons learned are archived together with other project documents.

They must always be easy to consult.

For this reason, organizations often set up a portfolio of lessons learned in the shared unit.

This allows to make the reports available to everyone that might be interested.

5) Recover the lessons learned

Although the lessons learned reports are stored on a shared unit, without the possibility to search for keywords, it is difficult to find them.

Therefore, it is important to store them in an orderly and easily retrievable manner, so that even those who have not directly participated in the project can find them.

Organizations have different approaches with which they manage – or do not manage – the lessons learned.

Let’s see this in detail.

Management of lessons learned: Type 1

The organizations belonging to this first type do not collect the lessons learned.

Almost always there is no defined process for analyzing and evaluating them.

Lessons learned, if taken into account, are managed without standardized tools or consistency between the projects.

This makes them unreadable and uncomparable.

What organizations of this type need is a defined process and basic tools and techniques.

In this type of business it is important that the project manager sees the lessons learned as constructive.

He must therefore transmit this conviction to the project team and to the stakeholders.

Management of lessons learned: Type 2

Here organizations have a defined process and basic tools to identify and document lessons learned.

The process is already part of the corporate culture.

It is applied consistently to projects and processes that have been revised to achieve greater efficiency.

Although the organizations of this type are constantly taking into account the lessons learned, they do not use them in a correct, complete and effective way.

What these organizations need are effective tools.

It is necessary to identify the actions that can be undertaken within the company in order to strengthen weak areas.

After that, these actions have to be implemented during each project.

This can be done through better training of the project manager and / or of the team members.

It could also mean procedures or processes added or improved.

The people responsible for analyzing the lessons learned should have a role within the company that allows them to implement the solutions.

It is also important that data collection takes place using consistent processes and forms.

The coherence of input information enables faster identification of recurring problems and proactive resolutions.

An example of an effective tool for collecting lessons learned is the construction of an input form.

This document consents a consistent collection of data as well as providing a means for easier recovery.

lessons learned

The model should include fields such as: category, lesson learned, actions taken, how the action was taken, keywords, etc.

Keywords will be essential for an easy and quick recovery.

Management of lessons learned: Type 3

This third type of organization is normally able to perform a complete analysis of the lessons learned.

It is also able to convert this information into concrete actions.

The reports are well structured, using charts and diagrams, everything is consistent and maintained in a centralized unit.

Let’s repeat an important concept:

collecting, analyzing and learning from lessons learned should be a continuous effort throughout the life of the project. 

Everyone from the project manager to the project team, from bord of directors to stakeholders, should contribute to the collection, documentation and archiving of lessons learned for the benefit of future projects.

Do you collect and correctly use lessons learned in your company?

Is there a lesson learned that you remember the most or has left you important ideas to improve your project?

Share your experience in a comment.

Start planning your project.

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