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Ron Gray: Implementing a Lessons Learned Knowledge Base

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Introduction

We all develop and apply lessons learned in many activities throughout the day. We gladly exchange information about successes and failures with others so they can benefit when the activities are repeated in the future. Unfortunately, when it comes to project management, many organizations don’t have the time, discipline, or procedures to properly document lessons learned.

This should not be the case. Documenting lessons learned is either explicitly or implicitly part of many project management methodologies including PRINCE2, CMMI, ITIL, MOF, and of course, the PMBOK Guide. Learning from experiences is a natural part of the plan-do-check-act cycle. Most of your projects will be similar in nature so it’s in your best interest to avoid repeating the same mistakes. By documenting these experiences you also help ensure others can repeat successes and avoid failures in the future.

This article discusses lessons learned as they apply to the PMBOK Guide Third Edition and suggests ways to begin or enhance a lessons learned knowledge base.

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Lessons Learned and the PMBOK Guide

The PMBOK Guide defines lessons learned as “the learning gained from the process of performing the project”. The lessons learned knowledge base is a store of historical information and lessons learned about both the outcomes of previous project selection decisions and previous project performance. Lessons learned and the lessons learned knowledge base are part of organizational process assets, so it’s important to understand how they fit within this bigger context. Organizational process assets are any and all of the company’s process related assets that are or can be used to influence the project’s success. These process assets can be grouped into two categories:

·Processes and procedures for conducting work, including standards, policies, guidelines, templates, and requirements.

·Corporate knowledge bases such as lessons learned, historical information, and others.

While lessons learned should be applied, at a minimum, during project closure, the PMBOK Guide recommends documenting lessons learned throughout the project life cycle. In fact, lessons learned are used in all the process groups (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing), and is either an input to, or an output from, most of the 44 project management processes.

The tables below show where lessons learned are specifically mentioned in the PMBOK Guide and provide an idea of how they are used throughout the project life cycle. Table 1 lists the processes where lessons learned are used as inputs. Table 2 shows lessons learned as tools and techniques, and Table 3 shows processes that update lessons learned as outputs.

Table 1. Lessons learned as inputs

Process

Process Group

How Used

4.1.1.4 Develop Project Charter

(Organizational Process Assets)

Initiating

Information about both the results of previous project selection decisions and previous project performance information, and information from the risk management effort.

5.1.1.2 Scope Planning

(Organizational Process Assets)

Planning

Historical information about previous projects.

6.1.1.2 Activity Definition

(Organizational Process Assets)

Planning

Activity lists used by similar previous projects.

7.1.1.2 Cost Estimating

(Organizational Process Assets)

Planning

Cost estimates from previous projects similar in scope and size.

8.1.1.2 Quality Planning

(Organizational Process Assets)

Planning

Lessons learned from previous projects specific to the application area that may affect the project.

9.1.1.2 Human Resource Planning

(Organizational Process Assets)

Planning

Templates and checklists to reduce the amount of planning at the beginning of future projects and reduce the likelihood of missing important responsibilities.

10.1.1.2 Communications Planning

(Organizational Process Assets)

Planning

Decisions and results based on previous similar projects concerning communications issues.

11.2.1.2 Risk Identification

Planning

Information on prior projects.

11.3.1.1 Qualitative Risk Analysis

(Organizational Process Assets)

Planning

Data about risks on past projects and lessons learned knowledge base can be used in the Qualitative Risk Analysis process.

Table 2. Lessons learned as tools and techniques

Process

Process Group

How Used

10.2.2.4 Information Distribution

(Lessons Learned Process)

Executing

Lessons learned meetings focus on project successes and failures and make recommendations. Meeting can focus on technical development processes, or on the processes that aided or hindered performance.

Table 3. Lessons learned as outputs

Process

Process Group

How Used

4.4.3.7 Direct and Manage Project Execution

(Work Performance Information)

Executing

Information on the status of project activities.

4.7.3.4 Close Project

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Closing

Historical information and lessons learned about the project are transferred to the lessons learned knowledge base.

5.5.3.7 Scope Control

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Monitoring and Controlling

The causes of variances, the reasons behind corrective actions, and other types of lessons learned from project scope change control.

6.6.3.6Schedule Control

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Monitoring and Controlling

The causes of variances, the reasons behind corrective actions, and other lessons learned from schedule control.

7.3.3.7 Cost Control

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Monitoring and Controlling

Root causes of variances, reasons for corrective action, and other lessons learned from cost, resource, or resource production control.

8.3.3.8 Perform Quality Control

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Monitoring and Controlling

The causes of variances, reasons for corrective action, and other lessons learned from quality control.

9.4.3.4 Manage Project Team

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Monitoring and Controlling

Organization charts, ground rules, procedures for virtual teams, special team member skills discovered, and issues and solutions.

10.2.3.1 Information Distribution

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Executing

Causes of issues, reasons behind corrective actions, and other types of lessons learned about Information Distribution.

10.3.3.5 Performance Reporting

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Monitoring and Controlling

Causes of issues, reason behind corrective actions, and other types of lessons learned about performance reporting.

10.4.3.4 Manage Stakeholders

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Monitoring and Controlling

Causes of issues, reason behind corrective actions, and other types of lessons learned about stakeholder management.

11.1.3.1 Risk Management Planning

(Risk Management Plan Tracking)

Planning

Documents how risk activities will be recorded for lessons learned.

11.6.3.5 Risk Monitoring and Control

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Monitoring and Controlling

Lessons learned from the project risk management activities.

12.6.3.2 Contract Closure

(Organizational Process Assets – Updates)

Closing

Lessons learned analysis and process improvement recommendations for future purchases and acquisition planning.

By reviewing the inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs in the tables above we start to see how the PMBOK Guide expects lessons learned to be documented and used. For example, lessons learned from the cost control process of your current project are used in the cost estimating process of your next project. Lessons learned in the scope control process are used in the scope planning process of the next project, and so on. You might wonder why lessons learned aren’t listed as inputs to all the planning processes. The tables above show those processes where lessons learned are specifically mentioned in the PMBOK Guide. However, keep in mind that lessons learned are part of organizational process assets so all the processes that update and use them can benefit from lessons learned.

Getting Started

If you’re just starting a lessons learned knowledge base, or want to improve your existing one, consider using the PMBOK Guide as a starting point and tailor the procedures to your requirements. Before beginning you should consider establishing some basic requirements and assumptions. For example:

1.Keep in mind that the lessons learned knowledge base is part of the overall organizational process assets so it should be planned as part of a bigger picture of creating templates, checklists, policies, procedures and other documentation.

2.The benefits of using lessons learned must outweigh the effort of identifying, documenting, organizing and retrieving them. Strive to document the right amount of useful information without overloading the knowledge base with minutia.

3.Lessons learned should be tailored to the corporate culture and maturity level of the project team and stakeholders. If the lessons learned process is new territory, don’t expect too much too soon. Rather start at the beginning and implement continuous process improvements. This may require training, knowledge dissemination, and mentoring.

Create a lessons learned template to distribute to team members and use in meetings. You can find samples on the internet or develop your own by following the processes where organizational process assets are updated as outputs. Consider distributing the template at the kick-off meeting of your next project so team members will know what to look for.

Getting Buy-In

Of course, implementing a lessons learned knowledge base will be easier with the support of your senior management. But if they are not ready to lend their full support you can still begin by implementing procedures that are within your control. A little is more than nothing and the benefits will eventually extend beyond your circle. Getting buy-in is also easier if others participate in developing the guidelines. Most team members will be eager to help improve processes. However, again, if you are just starting the process you might encounter some of these common obstacles:

1.Some team members might be reluctant to document what they know. Knowledge often equates to power and job security so giving it up is not easy. However, the objective is not to capture their knowledge, but rather to ask for their help to document common pitfalls and actions to help ensure project success in the future.

2.Team members might be reluctant to search lessons learned, perhaps believing there is nothing to be gained, or searching is too time consuming. Consider creating a checklist for searching lessons learned in all the appropriate planning areas. If searching the knowledge base really is too time consuming then consider ways to optimize the process.

3.Some team members might not truly appreciate the potential value of lessons learned so might not know how to constructively contribute to the process. You might see this with junior members or stakeholders in weak matrix organizations who are too busy with day-to-day operations to bother with project management methodologies. You can help guide these individuals through the use of templates and mentoring.

Holding Meetings

At a minimum, consider holding a lessons learned meeting at the end of the project and documenting the results. Lessons learned meetings can provide valuable information for improving the project management processes. The purpose of the meetings is to discuss things that went right (so you can repeat them), as well as things that did not go so well (so you can avoid them). It’s this second part that can sometimes prove difficult. Unstructured meetings can turn into gripe sessions that provide no benefit and foster mistrust among team members.

You can help ensure meetings are productive by working from an agenda and by establishing ground rules. Some examples of ground rules include:

1.Don’t personalize or emotionalize issues. You are a team of professionals objectively discussing how to improve the methods used to obtain a result. Avoid using names or pointing fingers. One way to encourage this is to place the product (or an object representing the product), in the middle of the table. This way, you refer to the product and not individuals.

2.Strive to develop a level of trust where those who feel they see areas for improvement can speak freely. Maintain a level of respect at all times. Speak professionally. Don’t interrupt. Use active listening.

3.Everyone’s time is valuable so stick to topics in which all attendees can participate. For example, don’t let two engineers get into a long technical discussion in front of the sales team. You might want to encourage department heads to hold their own lessons learned meetings within their departments and bring their results to the meeting.

4.The goal is not just to identify mistakes but also to document how to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future.

Distribute the compiled results of the meeting to all attendees and include them in the lessons learned knowledge base.

Accessing the Lessons Learned Knowledge Base

The results of the lessons learned meeting are included in the project files and become part of the company’s organizational process assets. Lessons learned might result in refining procedures, templates, policies, and best practices. The rest should be organized in a manner that makes them easy to search. The organization should be consistent across all projects. Most project files are stored electronically so the folder structure should be easy to navigate and use consistent file naming.

Eventually, these electronic files should be indexed for more focused access. For example, a team member might want to search all lessons learned in the area of purchases and acquisitions. This can be accomplished with a database where the results of completed lessons learned templates are entered. At a minimum, each lesson learned record should also have the project ID, project type, knowledge area, process, creation date, summary, cause, resolution, and last review date.

It will help if all entries use a clear and consistent writing style. Basic elements of style include clarity, consistency, concision, completeness and correctness. This is not as easy as it sounds. When several people are updating the knowledge base you quickly begin to notice different writing styles which could affect the usefulness of the data. Well known style-guides include Strunk’s “Elements of Style”, “The Chicago Manual of Style”, and the “Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications”.

Of course now that the entry is in a knowledge base it must be reviewed periodically for relevancy. The goal is to keep the knowledge base current and useful.

Conclusion

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, you’re half right: it does take some effort. However, keep in mind that one of the initial requirements should be that the benefits of the lessons learned knowledge base outweigh the level of effort in creating and maintaining it. Start with what the team is capable of doing now, and then implement gradual process improvements. With vision, determination, and teamwork, you can build a lessons learned knowledge base that will become a valuable tool to help ensure the success of your future projects.

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