Lessons Learned: Questions to Ask

What do organizations that have consistently high levels of project success have in common? They conduct lessons learned discussions and create project archives during the project close-out phase. The lessons learned documentation includes what went right, what went wrong and what the project manager and team could have done better. The archives also include plans from previous projects and data on the costs and hours of work for every task in those projects. That data lets future project managers use historical data for analogous estimating, which is enormously accurate. Project managers who make estimates by the seat of their pants with no historical basis produce inaccurate estimates. Lessons Learned Main Page

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Documenting the lessons learned is an important step that is often cut short during project close-out. That may be because of project or overhead costs and the crunch of follow-on projects for the various team members. But this step is critical to improving future projects in the organization. A best practice identified in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)® is to include lessons learned in the baseline schedule for the project. The project manager should prepare for the lessons learned task. The lessons learned approach may vary depending on the size of the project or your organization’s processes. The lessons learned may be gathered at milestone points during the project life-cycle, annually for a multi-year project, or at the end of the project. Some approaches to generate or gather lessons learned include questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, guided discussions, and meetings. Meetings may be held face-to-face, via teleconference, or video-conference. When the lessons learned are scheduled to be captured, the project member with the lessons learned task should schedule the resources and distribute the materials, agenda, and schedule. Lessons learned should be approached from a positive aspect, as gripe sessions seldom produce effective solutions. The team may cover areas for improvement in a positive frame. One may ask some of the following questions when discussing the project events. These questions may help the team to focus the discussion to improve the organization’s processes and OPA for future projects.

•           What worked well for this project or the project team?

•           What didn’t work well for this project or the project team?

•           What should be done over or differently?

•           What surprises did the team handle during the project?

•           What project events were not anticipated?

•           Were the project goals attained? If not, what changes would help to meet goals in the future?

Naturally, these are not the only questions and possibly not the official way to ask and develop lessons learned. But the questions are a reflection point for project managers and team members. Your organization may have some lessons learned questions and processes already developed, just ask. You will gain value from the experiences of your predecessors and increase your chances for executing a successful project.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said George Santavana. How can we avoid repeating past project failures if we don’t have lessons learned from previous projects? When I did a cursory review of the lessons learned database, I did not pay close attention to the content. The titles seemed unimportant and not related to the work that I would be performing. But I learned differently. You may halesson learnedve guessed the results of my experience. I repeated several of the mistakes made by my predecessors that I could have avoided. Had I noted the issues and the course corrections of my predecessors, I would have added this knowledge to my tool kit and saved a good deal of my team’s effort and repeat work. I did not realize this until I was preparing lessons learned from my project. I looked at former lessons learned documents to determine how to prepare my notes and I found several mistakes that I had repeated. I placed special emphasis on the title of my lessons learned to gain the interest of the casual reader.

A great outcome of the lessons learned activities is improvements in your organizational processes and the addition of artifacts to our library of resources. While studying for my master’s degree, I quickly learned that a very important characteristic to understanding an organization’s culture and success is to view the artifacts. Yes, the artifacts is a term you may recognize if you work with many of the industry standard quality practices, such as International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9001, Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI), and many others. In project management language, we call an artifact an Organizational Process Asset (OPA). The OPAs help us to reuse methods from previous successes and to avoid the pitfalls of past failures. These artifacts or OPAs help us to jump start success.

I did find many failed projects in organizations’ artifacts. Upon closer analysis, I found limited detail and little follow-through to engage the experts in each of the projects. I located the organizations that provide the services needed for these projects. I researched the documentation requirements to engage these experts. I used the OPA and prepared the supporting documents and details in the project folder formats of each of the organizations. When I invited the various teams to provide service support, the engineers were appreciative of the project folder format and materials. The project folders enabled the visiting engineers to be more effective in developing an appropriate solution. We successfully executed many of the previously failed projects by using the appropriate OPA. We followed the organizational processes to acquire the resources. Using the OPA to prepare the materials enabled the project team to easily digest the material and led to the efficient execution and ultimate success of each project.

Our project management courses teach you what questions to ask during your lessons learned discussions. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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