Monday, May 26, 2014

Lessons Learned

When people talk about leadership they love to talk about vision, and mission statements and ‘motivating the troops,’ and all the other pieces that can make being a leader – at any level – both challenging and exciting. But there is another piece to leadership, and it is as necessary a part of leadership as are the fundamentals of vision, intellect, communication and the rest. That piece is the process of learning from mistakes.

In the military, particularly in certain high performance communities such as fighter aviation and Special Forces, there is a process that is known colloquially as ‘the debrief.’ In fact, there are a broad range of ‘debriefs,’ from the intense, 20 minute long, pointed tactical debriefs that take place immediately after every flight or every special warfare ‘problem’ – whether operational  (real) or exercise, all the way up through theater-wide collection of ‘lessons learned’ that take weeks or months to assemble and are analyzed by the various war colleges and such offices as the ‘Center for Naval Analysis.’

All of these various efforts have as their goal improving the performance of all those involved and all those that will follow. Properly done, this process will improve both the planning and execution of any effort, unit level training, and the equipment used, and most importantly, will improve the decision-making ability of those involved.

There are three major cognitive categories of every de-brief or lesson learned:
- What worked and Why?
- What didn’t work and Why not?
- What worked in spite of your actions?
There are more possible ways to parse this, but when done properly, these three major subdivisions will in fact encapsulate all the other possible categories.

This is nothing more than an effort to learn from experience, so that all benefit from the mistakes of others. To do it well requires several characteristics, including the ability to accurately collect information on what has taken place, the ability to accurately relate and analyze that information, and the ability to coldly and clinically analyze and evaluate the results.  This last item, the ability to understand what happened and reach an accurate conclusion, is the most important part of the entire process. Without it the process is meaningless. And without it, it is impossible to become a top decision-maker.

Good ‘debriefers’ become such because they practice the art for years, continually honing what can only be described as an art. To watch a top fighter pilot or SEAL debrief an operation is to understand the full scope of a real professional. It requires dedication to excellence, discipline and a critical eye; and years of practice.

Of course, one of the real problems with Lessons Learned is that if you keep at it long enough you will eventually arrive at a problem in which the next step is ‘start over with a completely different concept.’

This is perhaps the hardest decision that any organization can face – though to give the ‘devil his due,’ DOD has made this decision from time to time. Examples mainly can be found in procurement decisions in which certain classes of weapon systems have been terminated. For example, in the 1960s DOD and the Air Force ended the B-70 high altitude, supersonic bomber when it became clear that the technology trend for future weapons made the survivability of such an aircraft unlikely. Businesses have the advantage that they can attach profit and loss figures to many concepts, making the decision to stop easier in some – but certainly not all – cases.

But, in the end, the key is that the experiences of the past need to be continually analyzed and assessed and good leaders will evaluate those assessments and decide when it is time to say ‘enough.’

It is worth noting that this is what is not happening in the federal government; we have several echelons of leadership that are seemingly incapable of recognizing that they are incapable of controlling what is happening in the ever expanding and increasingly complex departments and agencies. Large businesses have the advantage of clearly understood returns on investment/profit and loss statements to ‘keep them honest’ – hard data points that allow them to ‘fall back’ onto more or less objective material; governments do not. Healthcare can be measured either at the very personnel level – between you and your doctor, or it can be measured in profit and loss statements among the various businesses that make up the health care industry. But the efforts to control large and sprawling operations such as government health care are showing an organization that has already unraveled. But the leadership refuses to see that the only reasonable step at this point is to reduce the size of the effort and their own span of control.


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