Increase Productivity and Reduce
Risks by Learning Lessons from Failure
Author : Sujit Sopan Barhate, PMP
To sustain in competitive world, Organizations strive to increase productivity year on year. Systematic
learning from mistakes, failures and successes is one of the ways to reduce risk realization leading to
increase in productivity.
The wisdom of learning from failures is unquestionable. Still, many a times there is no Organizational
emphasis, no formal process defined which could help in learning, sharing and deploying lessons in the
A definite process should drive it by involving all stakeholders and experts. The process should contribute
to learn right lessons and should be able to share them across the Organization. The lessons should help
not to make same/similar mistakes again (upfront risk mitigation) and to repeat success frequently.
This paper provides effective way of lessons learned process implementation. The paper provides a
model for implementing the process in the Organization. It throws light on barriers/difficulties in
implementation and ways to overcome them effectively. Also, it discusses how risks can be
reduced/mitigated using proven actions from past which helps in increasing productivity of the
KEYWORDS : Lessons Learned, Risk Management
Organizations are thriving to be better day by day. Continuous improvement programs are increasing with
lot of management attention. In order to improve from current situation, Organizations must learn from
failures as well as successes of their own. Furthermore, they shall refer learning from other
Organizations. To enable Organizations learn from themselves or others, the Organization has to be
developed as a learning Organization. David Garvin (1993) has defined learning Organizations as skilled
at five main activities: systematic problem solving, experimenting with new approaches, learning from
past experiences and learning from best practices from others and transferring knowledge throughout the
Many Organizations attempt to be a learning organization but do not have formal process or special
Organizational emphasis and motivation to document them. Many a times, they have processes written
down and required tools in place but they fail in implementation. Everybody understands importance of
the process but fail in implementation. Francesca Gino & Gary P. Pisano (2011), Mark D. Cannon and
Amy C. Admondson (2005), Mark Marlin (2008) have listed barriers and possible causes in
Documenting lessons learned is imperative in Project Management. Lessons can be learned throughout
the project life cycle (PMBOK, 4
Edition). They shall be documented with appropriate analysis and shall
be archived in a database as part of project closure activity. The Lessons Learned database could be one
of the important Organizational Process Asset which will directly contribute in enhancing Organization’s
maturity in executing the projects.
Successful process and its implementation will help in risk management. The learning surely helps in
avoiding risks as the learning from previous failure must have taught a lesson. Also, risks will be reduced
or easily mitigated by Organization’s self-learning from past or learning from other organizations. James
F. Clawson and David Oberhettinger (2001) have cited risk avoidance by Lessons Learned process. Petr
HANACEK, Petr PERINGER and Zdena RABOVA (2000) have explained risk analysis based on
knowledge earned through past failures. Risk management based on lessons learned leads effective and
efficient organization as risk identification and mitigation is known from past so, it is easy to avoid the risk
during planning itself.
Learning from failure is captured by many authors very well. However, very few articles throw light on
utilizing the learning for betterment of the organization.
The purpose of this paper is to relate learning lessons from failures and successes to effective risk
management which will help organization in getting better day by day. The paper proposes a model for
Lessons Learned, ways to overcome barriers to ensure better implementation of the process and link it to
risk management which will lead to effectiveness improvement of the organization.
LESSONS LEARNED PROCESS
When we fail to learn from our mistakes or others, we tend to repeat the mistake (Jugdev, 2012). Hence,
learning from ours as well as others mistake is the first step for improvement.
The building blocks of the process (refer figure 1) are: Failure Analysis, Review & Evaluation, Deployment
& Confirmation, Learning from Success, Documenting the Lesson, Sharing and Institutionalization.
Observe and Analyze
Figure 1 : Lessons Learned Process Blocks
Systematic analysis of the failure is a key to learn right lesson. This is the first activity towards quality
movement. Failures shall be analyzed by using scientific methods rather that guess work and opinions of
experts. Always get data related to the failure, analyze it using statistical tools like, histograms, Pareto
charts, limit charts etc. Believe in the results coming out of data instead of assumptions.
Based on data analysis, perform root cause analysis (using tools like 5 why, Fish Bone Diagram etc.) to
understand real reason of failure. Working on the identified reason will provide long term or final solution.
Otherwise, you may identify temporary solutions or one time corrective actions. Figure 2 shows detail
process flow and iteration/decision loops in process of learning from failures.
Refer the lesson and
implement the given
Are analysis and
Is problem listed
in Lesson Learned
Is it the correct
Is it the
most feasible and
Confirm the solution as
appropriate solution for the
defect or problem
Close the review
comments if any
Enter the Lesson
Share the Learned
Perform Root Cause
Derive Corrective and/or
Review the analysis and
Select most feasible
Observe and analyze the
Draft the learned
Review the draft and
validate entries in all fields
Figure 2 : Learning from Failures
Review & Evaluation
The failure analysis might come up with one or more solutions. These solutions should be reviewed
before implementation. A thought has to be given on whether the solution can be a preventive in nature
for such issues.
Peers along with Subject Matter Experts (SME) shall participate in the review.
Objective of the review should be :
- Have all the causes been considered in causal analysis
- Is root cause identified
- Are alternatives explored
- Feasibility of the solution(s)
- If solutions are many and they might applicable to specific situation/scenarios
Refer figure 2 for review and correction loops.
Deployment & Confirmation
Solution(s) shall be carefully evaluated before we conclude the resolution for a problem or failure. The
solution must be first tested by deploying it in controlled environment. Evaluate the identified solution in
different practical situations. Results shall be recorded and analyzed.
The results shall prove that the failure will not occur after deploying the solution. Result analysis shall
conclude that the solution has achieved its purpose. The solution can be confirmed as a final solution
after performing this analysis. This is the stage where, we can say that we have learned a lesson.
Until, we confirm the solution, the analysis and learning is incomplete.
Learning from Success
Success is celebrated and enjoyed. However, we shall go beyond celebration and analyze reasons for
the success. Distinguished factors leading to success shall be reviewed, discussed and drafted as part of
Learning from other organizations is important because, organization can improve its effectiveness by
copying or imitating their competences which lead them to a success. For example, Japanese car
manufacturers went to United States after World War II to learn US manufacturing methods and improved
upon it in Japan. Japanese car manufacturers pioneered new methods and advanced in manufacturing
later. Then, the learning process was reversed in 1980s when struggling US car makers went to Japan to
learn about improvements that Japanese carmakers had pioneered and took this learning back to Us and
improved upon it.
Documenting the Lesson
Learning is an ongoing process. The learning has to be appreciated by documenting it in a database.
The database shall be used effectively and efficiently. The lessons shall be categorized to facilitate
efficient use of lessons. Different categories and applicability filters of the database will be able to provide
needed crisp information to the user. The categories could be technical, process, project management,
customer management, financial etc.
Lessons shall be documented unambiguously and shall be understood by others. Well documented
lessons will be useful for the organization.
Every lesson must document following details :
Lesson Learned Statement
Failure/Success Description – describe the defect/issue/problem identified or success
Analysis –data analysis, root cause analysis, feasibility study, results of the solution in its pilot
run and supporting data of its confirmation.
Solution – detailed description of the solution which was deployed for the issue and confirmed by
Category – whether the lesson is related to technology, process, procedure, method, project
management, customer satisfaction.
Effective means of recording learning and presenting data shall be used. Audio-visual recording could
help in better explanation of the problem, analysis and the solution.
Accurate lesson and other details in the database will add value for the organization. So, lessons learned
draft shall be reviewed carefully by experts as the learning will be spread across the organization.
Appropriate description of failure, analysis, methods used to seek solutions, verification of solution
feasibility and lessons learned statement.
Knowledge gained after complete analysis of the problem must be spread quickly and effectively. The
learning will have desired impact when they will be shared broadly and referred when other group of
people face similar situation or before starting any initiative or project.
An Organization should have a centralize repository/database for the lessons. Online tool to document
and share the lessons is useful. New learning shall be posted on bulletin boards, sharing in team
meetings, e-mail notifications. Such mechanisms will help spreading information quickly and can attract
attention of people facing similar issues in their work areas.
Best practices shall be identified from the lessons learned. Best practice is a method or technique that
has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a
Such best practices shall be included in main stream processes of the organization. This action will
ensure effective use of the lessons learned process and effectiveness of the organization will increase.
USE OF ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING
Best Practices from other
Problem solving or
Figure 3: Referring Learning before stating activity/project or for solving a problem
We have discussed in detail about learning from own failures and success in the above sections. This
section focuses on using the learning. Use of Lessons Learned database and learning from past
successes will ensure not repeating same failure again and repeat success again.
Before starting any initiative or project or while solving problem, as shown in figure 3, Organization shall
- Lessons Learned from failures
- Lessons Learned from success
- Best practices followed in other Organizations
These references will prepare organization well to start the initiative or project. This step will provide
benefit for the organization from its internal learning as well as from industry. It will help in aligning
processes, methods, technologies which are best in class. It will either reduce risks or mitigate them
For example, Hella India Automotive (HIA) implemented the process systematically during planning and
executing it’s one of the prestigious project from an Indian OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). The
project is to develop a complex electronics product for passenger cars. HIA approached as follows:
HIA adopted following changes in its process and methods based on learning from past failures or
identified scope for improvement areas:
- Improved project organization: a role of Technical Head, Lean architecture team
- Modular software development to accommodate frequent requirement changes
- Front load Software Testing and slow ramp up of System Test team
- Implement Master test strategy (central controlling and monitoring of testing activities for all
domains, software, hardware, mechanical and system)
- Systematic test case generation with more than 90% automation in the process
HIA learned from its past successes and implemented in the project:
- Reuse of software modules from other projects
- Reuse of proven test setups
- Utilizing local competence to construct test equipment
HIA studied industry practices and analyzed for feasibility in the project:
- Test case reduction using ‘Taguchi Method’
- DOORS info model for requirements engineering
The above approach is resulted in avoiding/mitigating known risks. The productivity has increased by
20% with respect to similar projects executed in the past. Most of the methods implemented in this project
are identified as Best Practices. These practices are spread across the organization in various
workshops. The practices will be implemented in other projects and analyzed for their consistent
RISK MANAGEMENT AND LESSONS LEARNED – LEADING TO IMPROVEMENT
Efficient use of lessons can provide mitigation steps for the identified risk. Based on previous experience
and successes, projects can choose most effective mitigation to the risk. This means lessons learned
database is an effective tool for risk management. In many cases, lessons learned can prevent major
missteps if applied before engineering or business judgments. The efficient use of lessons learned can
provide an effective countermeasure against reasonably avoidable risks (Clawson, 2001).
Risk management and lessons learned are related to each other. Lessons can be learned when risks
realizes (failure occurs) and countermeasures are implemented to mitigate it. Similarly, lessons learned
database can be used to minimize or avoid risk based on previous experience documented as part of
lesson. It is a cycle of learning process and using the lessons learned. This cycle needs long period and
mature processes to show the benefit. In project or business life cycle, risks realize, failures occur, ways
are found to mitigate the risk or to overcome the failure and the organization learns in this process. The
learning shall be used in future for not to realize same risk again. It goes in a cycle as shown in figure 4.
Avoidance of risks, save organization from failures and hence, organization improves with respect to its
past performance. Garvin (1993) says, learning organizations are not built overnight. Learning from
failures and avoid failures based on learning is indeed a long and continuous process.
Figure 4: Cycle of using Lessons Learned
PROCESS IMPLEMENTATION – KEY SUCCESS FACTORS
Good practices are not adopted automatically-they must be driven into practice with courageous patience
and effort (Midha, 2005). Most of the times, lessons learned from mistakes or successes appear obvious.
Moreover, there are several barriers in employees mind makes process implementation difficult. Hence,
we need to take systematic and consistent steps to implement it successfully.
Strong Management Emphasis
The process of learning and using it effectively in the organization shall be implemented ‘top-down’.
Support, willingness and emphasis of leaders will ensure implementation of the process. Managers shall
consistently talk about the lessons learned process implementation, sharing of the lessons and
demonstrate outcome of the process in terms of productivity gain. Also, they shall mentor executives to
think in right direction in dealing with the failures and encourage them to perform detailed analysis.
Management shall take all necessary steps to get rid of barriers in implementation and make the process
easy for implementation.
Educate employees about the process. Training with examples will help employees to realize value of the
process. They shall be educated so that the barriers in their mind have to be removed. They shall be
motivated and encouraged to participate in the learning process. Table 1 refers the barriers in employee
due to which they may not participate in the process.
Barriers Actions to Overcome Barriers
Lack of awareness Conduct process awareness sessions and explain/demonstrate benefits
of the process
Lack of correct way of
thinking about failure
Ask employees to reflect on what they did wrong and push them to avoid
similar mistakes in future and ask them to write report on what
Lack of guidelines Help/guidelines to follow the process shall be provided along with small
training on the subject
Lack of motivation for
Demonstrate with fair example to educate employees and convince
them as the process is not an overhead in long run
Value shall be demonstrated by sharing realistic examples
Detail guidelines and training to all employees
Positive pressure from Management and direction will help.
Table 1: Barriers
Associate pain of mistake
Mistakes or lost opportunities can be expensive. Associate the cost/pain incurred to the mistake or lost
opportunity. Lost opportunity can be not referring previous lessons or best practices from other
organizations which could have prevented the expensive mistake. Such association will bring seriousness
and the value of the lesson learned will be appreciated.
Ensure the process is being followed
Following the process consistently will be a key for success. It is a continuous improvement process and
its effectiveness will be seen over a period.
The Organization shall provide all necessary process workflow, tools and guidelines to facilitate intended
Employees shall be encouraged and rewarded for following the process and bringing value to the
Learning comes from systematic analysis of failures and successes of own and from referring lessons
learned and best practices followed in other organizations. These lessons can be effectively used to
mitigate risks in future activities. Due to this, failures are avoided and successes are repeated. At the
same time realization of unknown risks will teach lessons to the organization. Again the learned lessons
help mitigating future risks. The cycle will lead to improvement as expensive mistakes and lost
opportunities will reduce over a period of time.
The process needs to be implemented consistently. Implementation of the process must be everyone’s
responsibility. However, leaders shall participate in implementing the process and taking all necessary
steps to overcome barriers.
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Sujit Barhate is currently working as Deputy General Manager at Hella India Automotive Pvt. Ltd.,
He holds a BE in Instrumentation degree and completed a Business Management certificate
course from XLRI, Jamshedpur. He has perused PMP credentials in April 2007 and CSM from
Scrum Alliance in April 2008. He has around 14 years of experience in Process Instrumentation
and Automotive Embedded System field.