How Can Companies Benefit From Not Making Repeated Mistakes?

10 June 2013 | By Catherine Wheatcroft

We often hear in the press of lessons needing to be learnt in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and again. There are many examples including:

The government’s wizard scheme to make banks lend more money to businesses and consumers by providing them with cheap money – the affect of which is said to be ‘disappointing’.
The loss at steel giant Severfield-Rowen has risen to £28.9m after the firm was hit by cost overruns on a number of problem contracts, including the high-profile Cheesegrater tower.
Opening of Shangri-La’s first UK hotel pushed back by six months, after delays to £40m fit-out.
The government Construction Strategy is still failing to have a significant impact in the wider public sector two years after its launch, according to a survey of more than 300 construction clients conducted by Building.

Depending on the situation, the issue, the area that failed or the risks that were not foreseen, we can hazard a guess at how to put things right for the next time around. But in the context of learning lessons in industry, what do we actually mean by lessons learned?

There are many definitions available on the web and most businesses involved in client projects will tell you that the definition is to do with knowledge and understanding gained by experience, whether that is a positive or negative experience. But the issue that most people have with the concept of lessons learned, is that they are not actually learned at all. There is no physical happening or change that takes place within the prganisation, its staff or processes to make the lesson a learned lesson.

Take any typical civil engineering project and you would expect there are many experiences and situations to learn from, so that similar projects in the future do not encounter the same problems. It is likely that some sort of a review is carried out after each project to look at problems, delays, cost overruns etc. There may be reasons for these and they will be documented in some way as the ‘lessons to learn on future projects’. But what happens then? How do these lessons actually create tangible improvements to performance, bottom line and client satisfaction?

Lost in the graveyard of lessons learned...
All too often the lessons are lost as soon as they have been identified:

  • * Filed somewhere in an appropriately named folder in a shared file that never gets opened.
  • * The lessons are documented on a form that is carefully filed away in the project folder, never be referred to again until it is time to clear out the ‘archive’.
  • * They are captured electronically and emailed to all project managers to ‘gain knowledge' from. But the reality is that they are looked at once and then left in that huge list of emails that we will ‘come back to later’.
  • * Perhaps the organisation has invested in some knowledge capture software, where it will be stored with many others that never actually appear when a search is made.

We can all relate to these methods of dealing with information that is not specific or cannot be finalised. And the reason that they are deemed a problem is because they are vague and have no action attached to them. If each lesson learned is actionable by a corrective method, something can change, get better, improve and be embedded into processes used throughout the business.

There is no point documenting lessons that are vague or indecisive…
When you carry out project reviews make sure that the lessons and areas for improvement you arrive at are specific, tangible and can be actioned by someone or a team.


Vague lessons of no value or use... Vague lessons of no value or use...

A better system needs to be put in place for monitoring change requests.

The project team need to be better informed about risks.

The question to ask for a better value lesson...

What needs to be better about it? How will it be better?
How will better be measured?

Who will put it in place?

The question to ask for a better value lesson...

What risk?
How and why did the risk happen?

How will the teams be better informed?

What methods of training and communication will be used?


It is much better to create actions for each lesson. If there are actions, there is ownership and with ownership comes the responsibility and accountability to see it through. Only then will a change occur and a lesson have been truly learned through the entire organisation.

So next time your organisation is trying to identify corrective actions, learning from lessons or reviewing a project, ensure to keep asking WHY? You will then get to the root cause and the action needed to improve. You will also avoid having a database full of project review material that no one ever refers to.