Lessons Learned and Change Management

One of the hallmarks of a quality culture is learning from our past experiences, to eliminate repeat mistakes and to reproduce success. The more times you do an activity, the more you learn, and the better you get (within limits for simple activities).  Knowledge management is an enabler of quality systems, in part, to focus on learning and thus accelerate learning across the organization as a whole, and not just one person or a team.

This is where the” lessons learned” process comes in.  There are a lot of definitions of lessons learned out there, but the definition I keep returning to is that a lessons learned is a change in personal or organizational behavior as a result from learning from experience. Ideally, this is a permanent, institutionalized change, and this is often where our quality systems can really drive continuous improvement.

Lessons learned is activity to lessons identified to updated processes
Lessons Learned

Part of Knowledge Management

The lessons learned process is an application of knowledge management.

Lessons identified is generate, assess, and share.

Updated processes (and documents) is contextualize, apply and update.

Lessons Learned in the Context of Knowledge Management

Identify Lessons Learned

Identifying lessons needs to be done regularly, the closer to actual change management and control activities the better. The formality of this exercise depends on the scale of the change. There are basically a few major forms:

  • After action reviews: held daily (or other regular cycle) for high intensity learning. Tends to be very focused on questions of the day.
  • Retrospective: Held at specific periods (for example project gates or change control status changes. Tends to have a specific focus on a single project.
  • Consistency discussions: Held periodically among a community of practice, such as quality reviewers or multiple site process owners. This form looks holistically at all changes over a period of time (weekly, monthly, quarterly). Very effective when linked to a set of leading and lagging indicators.
  • Incident and events: Deviations happen. Make sure you learn the lessons and implement solutions.

The chosen formality should be based on the level of change. A healthy organization will be utilizing all of these.

Level of ChangeForm of Lesson Learned
TransactionalConsistency discussion
After action (when things go wrong)
After action (weekly, daily as needed)
After action (daily)

Successful lessons learned:

  • Are based on solid performance data: Based on facts and the analysis of facts.
  • Look at positive and negative experiences.
  • Refer back to the change management process, objectives of the change, and other success criteria
  • Separate experience from opinion as much as possible. A lesson arises from actual experience and is an objective reflection on the results.
  • Generate distinct lessons from which others can learn and take action. A good action avoids generalities.

In practice there are a lot of similarities between the techniques to facilitate a good lessons learned and a root cause analysis. Start with a good core of questions, starting with the what:

  • What were some of the key issues?
  • What were the success factors?
  • What worked well?
  • What did not work well?
  • What were the challenges and pitfalls?
  • What would you approach differently if you ever did this again?

From these what questions, we can continue to narrow in on the learnings by asking why and how questions. Ask open questions, and utilize all the techniques of root cause analysis here.

Then once you are at (or close) to a defined issue for the learning (a root cause), ask a future-tense question to make it actionable, such as:

  • What would your advice be for someone doing this in the future?
  • What would you do next time?

Press for specifics. if it is not actionable it is not really a learning.

Update the Process

Learning implies memory, and an organization’s memories usually require procedures, job aids and other tools to be updated and created. In short, lessons should evolve your process. This is often the responsibility of the change management process owner. You need to make sure the lesson actually takes hold.

Differences between effectiveness reviews and lesson’s learned

There are three things to answer in every change

  1. Was the change effective – did it meet the intended purposes
  2. Did the change have any unexpected effects
  3. What can we learn from this change for the next change?

Effectiveness reviews are 1 and 2 (based on a risk based approach) while lessons learned is 3. Lessons learned contributes to the health of the system and drives continuous improvements in the how we make changes.


  • Lesson learned management model for solving incidents. (2017). 2017 12th Iberian Conference on Information Systems and Technologies (CISTI), Information Systems and Technologies (CISTI), 2017 12th Iberian Conference On, 1.
  • Fowlin, J. j & Cennamo, K. (2017). Approaching Knowledge Management Through the Lens of the Knowledge Life Cycle: a Case Study Investigation. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning61(1), 55–64. 
  • Michell, V., & McKenzie, J. (2017). Lessons learned: Structuring knowledge codification and abstraction to provide meaningful information for learning. VINE: The Journal of Information & Knowledge Management Systems47(3), 411–428.
  • Milton, N. J. (2010). The Lessons Learned Handbook : Practical Approaches to Learning From Experience. Burlington: Chandos Publishing.
  • Paul R. Carlile. (2004). Transferring, Translating, and Transforming: An Integrative Framework for Managing Knowledge across Boundaries. Organization Science, (5), 555.
  • Secchi, P. (Ed.) (1999). Proceedings of Alerts and Lessons Learned: An Effective way to prevent failures and problems. Technical Report WPP-167. Noordwijk, The Netherlands: ESTEC