Actions Speak Just as Loudly as Lessons

30 April 2013 | By Catherine Wheatcroft


The benefits of holding post project reviews or lessons learnt sessions are widely documented. There have been many recent examples in the press of projects that have been deemed to have been run using best practice and learning from previous projects, resulting in a positive PR story and satisfaction all round.

There are also reports of companies that probably need to pay more attention to learning lessons and identifying best practice methods. Only this week, Balfour Beatty hit the construction headlines with Steve Waite, managing director leaving the business and Mike Peasland, stepping down from his chief executive role. The report talks of a ‘big shake up’ taking place following profit warnings and an internal review of the business reporting ‘significant deterioration’ within the regional business.


This is due in part to a large number of projects across the business that has not achieved what the business wants. Reasons cited for this include difficult trading conditions, taking on additional risk, operational issues, delays on projects and supply chain issues. But you would think that a company such as Balfour Beatty would have learning from lessons and working to the best standards possible ingrained in their project processes. Although I have no doubt that attention and time is spent on reviewing projects, given the complexity and scale of their type of work.


The question that does need to be asked of Balfour Beatty and other project based businesses is whether they fall short at just identifying lessons and having them ‘filed away’ somewhere, never to be looked at again. Or do the lessons result in an action that is carried out and embedded in the entire organisational process?


Learning lessons from any project review should be focused on changing processes, behaviour or developing a new approach. Because learning implies that a change takes place, it is not ‘possible change’ or the ‘potential for change’, but physical and actual changes taking place.

A lesson cannot be learned until something changes as a result of the lessons. The US Centre for Wildfire Lessons states: ‘A lesson is truly learned when we modify our behaviour to reflect what we now know’ (Bailey, 2005). Lessons that are stored away in databases, intranets and on people’s hard drive are worthless, unless something changes as a result of the identified lesson.


Businesses need to think through their lessons learning procedures and ask themselves whether they are getting value from it in the way of change, improvement and reduction in repeated mistakes. Their procedure should take the project and organisation through lesson identification, actions to rectify the lessons and embedding the lesson into the entire organisation.


The identification of lessons should be an automatic stage of any project to review what went well, what did not go well, the root causes behind what happened and what can be learned as a result. If this stage is conducted well and in a structured way, it will be easier to assign actions to each lesson. The reality check on this is whether you have learned a better way to do something, a way to do something for the first time, a way not to do something for the future, an area, workflow or process that needs to be fixed. If these have been identified well, the actions will be to document a process improvement or a better way to avoid mistakes, create a new process or workflow or to fix something that is not working.


By having precise actions that make positive changes to organisational processes allows the lessons to be fixed or corrected. Where a new process or procedure is involved, it is vital that the right people in the organisation are made aware of it and can then follow it through by making changes to their behaviour in order to carry out the correct process. This is where training, educating and communication need to be well embedded in the organisation.

So although repositories of lessons to ‘share’ amongst project teams and colleagues are a good and proactive approach, the real value is in the follow up action. In reality there should not really be any repository of lessons, because they would all have resulted in an action that has been followed up or carried out. All staff within the organisation will have changed to adapt to the lesson and resulting action, so the lesson is in effect redundant other than for possible historical information purposes.


Maybe there is more value and benefit hidden away in these databases of lessons and project ‘wash up’ sheets than we give credit to. I suspect that a review of such stored away information would reveal some obvious actions that could make a real difference to projects that in time will make a huge difference to the overall organisational problems that the likes of Balfour Beatty have identified. Time to dust off the lessons learnt database and take a look…?