I bent forward into the drain, my shovel digging into the thick, smelly mud which squelched as I lifted it clear into the bucket. The bucket, now almost full, stood as testament to the power of knowledge management. With my back aching, the weak autumn sun made my brow’s sheen of sweat gleam; my breath clouded forth in the cold morning air and I steadied myself for another lunge into the now nearly empty drain. I smiled grimly to myself, thinking, “Even this is not a lesson learned.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, I had attended a family service at my village church. Before the service began, I had noticed the unsightly mud that storms in the week had washed down the hill – it had blocked the grills sitting on top of each drain and large puddles had spread out across the car park, pavement and the footpath that leads into the church. Members of the congregation – many of them visiting for a baptism and forming negative first impressions – gingerly tiptoed their way past the worst of the mess but few could avoid entering church without their smart footwear being spattered with small flecks of mud.
I sit on the committee that oversees the running of the church, with specific responsibility for its grounds – this usually involves asking volunteers to help with weeding, mowing the lawns, lopping or pruning trees, sweeping leaves etc. I had made a point of arriving at church 30 minutes early, so as to clear any likely mess but, on arrival, it was clear that I could only do so much in the time available and that I would have to come back another time, better prepared . A lesson learned, some might have said…and they would have been wrong.
So the following morning, I headed off to church again, armed with a broom, a hose, a rake, a bucket and a shovel. First thing I noticed was that the tap in the churchyard was not threaded and so I couldn’t attach my hose to it. I had to pause, head off to a hardware store and buy the necessary hose attachment . Some 2 hours later, after lots of hosing, sweeping and shovelling, the main walkway into the churchyard was clean and tidy and the 2 main drains were empty , their muddy, smelly contents emptied into a bucket and thrown on the churchyard compost heap.
I then noticed that each of the 2 drains had the entrance of an underground pipe running between them. I hosed it down from each end and noticed that whilst the water clearly ran from one into the other, it appeared to do so in the wrong direction. To be clear, the drain closest to the Church (Drain A) had a pipe running from it, no doubt into a sewer deep underground; but the other drain (Drain B), whilst obviously meant to overflow into Drain A, could not do so because of the angle of the pipe running between them.
It therefore appears that, after heavy rainfall, instead of excess water and mud flowing out into the sewers below, such flotsam flows back into Drain B, from which it cannot escape. Therefore, I will have to raise this with the local water company for them to inspect the drains  and, if necessary, correct the flow of water between them .
Now, I hear you ask, what on earth does any of this have to do with lessons learned, or knowledge management? This insight into the travails of a rural parish church is all very well but how is it relevant to me in my law firm, battalion, hospital, laboratory, police station, shop, airport, oil rig, aircraft carrier or trading desk?
As some readers may recall, lessons first need to be identified, then the recommended actions have to be implemented before any learning can be said to have taken place. (Regular readers of this blog will recall the 10 stages in the life of a lesson.) We’ll now show how my actions relate to lesson learning and readers may spot where their own lesson learning processes (if they have them) fall short.
So, back to the drains outside my church. I identified 5 actions that needed to be implemented in order for any lesson to be ‘learned’ from this ecclesiastical flooding saga: these are highlighted in bold. Here they are again, re-written as thought part of a lesson:
- Cleaning up the drains area outside the church will take time and you will need the correct equipment. Set aside at least 2 hours and bring the following: waterproof gloves; wellington boots; a large bucket; a wooden broom; a shovel; a rake; a hose (plus extensions, if necessary);
- Check the tap to which you will be attaching the hose and buy an attachment to fit it before you begin work;
- Use the rake and shovel to remove large clods of mud and leaves, then spray the cleared area with water, using the broom to clear away the surface water and remaining mud either into the bucket or into the drain if it is clear. If the drains are full, remove and set aside the metal cover, then dig out the blocking mud and leaves into the bucket, before emptying it onto a compost heap or similar area away from the drains;
- If the drains remain blocked, contact the local water company and request them to inspect them;
- Pipes connecting drains must be angled correctly to ensure water flows between them and away into a sewer; drainage engineers should consult the local map of drains and sewers before installing a new connecting pipe.
You will note how the first 3 actions fall upon me; in an expanded form they could become part of a guidance document or knowledge asset, thereby embedding the knowledge gained from this experience. Such a document should then be included along with any others relating to my role as overseer of the church grounds, so as to pass on this knowledge to a successor if/when I relinquish my role.
The final 2 actions are where this lesson needs to be ‘transferred’ or ‘elevated’ to an authority better equipped to deal with them. Only when the connecting pipe has been angled correctly can this lesson be said to have been ‘learned’.
I hope I have shown that there is quite a bit to do when seeking to learn in a deliberate way and some might question the effort and time required. Then again, there are those that put up with living under a leaking roof, or sitting on a delayed train, or working on an unsafe oil rig, or indeed any of the many frustrations and frictions that persist from not managing knowledge properly.
For a conversation about knowledge management in general or learning lessons in particular, please get in touch or visit the Knoco website.