Derive Value from Lessons Learned

Well structured companies operate with a Plan-Do-Check-Action (PDCA) process within their formalized ISO9000 process. On many occurrences, we observed that the relative weight allocated to the Plan-Do part of the process is by far disproportionate in terms of resource allocation compared to the Check-Action part. Since history tends to repeat by itself, the same causes producing the same effects, the next Plan-Do cycle benefits very little from what could have been the lessons learned from past experience.

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Sophisticated Program/Project Management process, trainings, certifications and tools are widely available nowadays. Depending on its purpose and its structure, more or less room is available to uncertainty for the generation of creative ideas. In any case, risks of drawbacks and mishaps to occur are present during the execution of the program.

Did the program/project management process allow for any reasonable time and resource allocation to debrief on those issues, how well does the debriefing convert into lessons learned in such a way as to avoid repeating the same mishap during future occurrences? How well does the process include providing communication with project team and stakeholders? Is the closing of the project in a controlled manner at the proper time, does it include a reasonable amount of debriefing time and resources available to correct the unexpected?

Project management structures are usually split in two families, the Waterfall opposing to the Agile type, the Prince2 being almost no longer in use. By nature, the Agile type accommodates itself better to the occurrence of mishaps. It’s easier to keep them in the short term memory of the team due to its much shorter cycle time. Handling short Agile cycles in a project is a way to handle easy fixes, which may remain latent, and therefore forgotten in the case of longer Waterfall cycles.

Issues arising during the course of the project affect its baseline. Whether in scope, schedule or cost, or a combination, the single issue is an opposite force to the work plan. Technical issues are tracked and resolved along the project life cycle, usually without triggering the activation of a contingency plan. Depending on the structure of the project, the execution of short and long term fixes is beard by the owner of the issue, as per definition of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). The sum of those issues may affect the earned value if exceeding the tolerance given during the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) preparation. But technical issues are (must be) expected by professional planners, corrected along the project course at execution level in the project management knowledge area to prevent them to appear again.

Other issues opposing to the fluid execution of the project result from organization effects: inadequate tooling, maladapted communication process, un-documented change requests, weak external supply contract, just to name a few, can create severe disruption during the process flow. For different reasons, while in the course of the project it may be decided to carry-on with those parasitic organization effects. However they become usually the main contributor to the unexpected overhead impact on cost and timeline.

“In one of the company I was consulting for, the project manager was physically sitting remotely from the rest of the organization. Consequently the communication and reporting process was only based on the formal structure in place, missing all the weak signals generated during informal interactions. Project management operation is not only a matter of putting straight connectors to streamline the WBS. Sitting in the center of gravity of the project helps to identify and quickly mitigate potential threats.”

Detecting the resisting forces to the fluid execution of the program is of utmost importance. During the course of operations it may be unreasonable to stop and fix organization issues. It is then the role of all the stakeholders to keep track and report any of those organization inadequacy to the program manager. Along the course of the timeline, placeholders must be available to allow for time and resources to debrief the organization issues.

Program managers are challenged by the organization to do more, faster, with fewer resources. Adding more constraints to a program often reach the point where stakeholders have the feeling of always lagging behind schedule and cost. In this context, the Plan-Do part of the program being reached with a debt of time and money, the Check-Action naturally suffers from unavailable resources remaining before engaging on the next part of the program or before reallocating the resources to other tasks.

Allocating time and resource to include enough Check-Action in the global PDCA process is important to avoid recurring mishaps, sources of turbulences in a program and sources of frustration for individuals contributing to the program. The interruption of a process for organizational reason may increase the risk of breaking the program’s momentum. So, formal and complete debriefing sessions must be included in the WBS with appropriate duration and resource allocation to ensure that the lessons learned convert significantly into process streamlining. That’s the only way to make sure history repeats itself, but leaving behind the resisting forces.

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