Tuesday, 15 October 2013

If we're going to learn from this, changes need to happen...

[Originally published on the Aspley Consultants website]

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last October, John Humphreys interviewed the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, on the issue of whether or not the then recent allegations made about the late Sir Jimmy Savile should be the subject of one all-encompassing inquiry or, as had been planned, several smaller, discrete ones conducted by separate bodies and with differing remits.

Ms Harman repeatedly spoke of lessons having been learned and/or the need to learn yet more.

What she meant to say – and what most people actually mean when they use these terms – is that lessons have been, or should be, ‘identified’.  Actually ‘learning’ a lesson is far harder and requires time, effort and money…in other words, a change in priorities.

Indeed, the British Army takes a fairly robust approach to such matters and only considers lessons to have been learned when a lesson’s recommended changes made to training, policy or procedures are observed to have had the desired benefit and the original issue from which lessons were identified has been addressed.

This may sound like an awful lot of ‘process’ but the distinction between ‘lessons identified’ and ‘lessons learned’ is an important one.  For too many years, organisations thought that learning lessons was simply a matter of conducting a review at the end of an activity, adding a ‘lessons learned’ annex to a report and then filing it. What happened?  No-one read it. No-one changed anything.  Worst of all, no-one learnt anything.

In other words, learning is a process, at the start of which people identify that the current way of doing things is producing unwanted outcomes (e.g. schedule over-runs, cost increases, productivity decreases, accidents, injuries etc).  The next step is to recommend changes to improve those outcomes (e.g. integrated planning, financial forecasting, efficiency measures, protective equipment, safety training etc).  Finally, they assess whether such recommendations have had the desired effect; where they have, they can rightfully claim to have learned a lesson.

To apply the term ‘learning’ to only the first stage in this process is to run the risk that the subsequent stages get overlooked and nothing actually changes at all.

For more information on 'lessons learned', visit this link to the Lessons Learned pages of the Knoco website.

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