Expanding the use of lessons learned to the global project environment
 The challenge
Restricting lessons-learned data to primary, in-house stakeholders significantly reduces their effectiveness and limits their potential benefit to project improvement.
Failure to learn from one’s or others’ mistakes guarantees they will be repeated. Lessons-learned programmes are implemented to prevent this repetition, ensuring that formal and informal knowledge and experience are effectively collected and shared.
However, lessons-learned programmes often contain confidential, proprietary or unique knowledge-based practices. This knowledge, which owners have paid a substantial cost to cultivate, can provide significant advantage to competitors. Furthermore, lessons learned can impact the perception of a company.
The documented experiences, both good and bad, can be perceived as a reflection of the company’s ownership, management, or guiding principles. This can affect valuation, employee morale and hiring and recruiting practices. These knowledge assets, gained from long years of execution experience, are a considerable part of a company’s success.
As a result, most lessons-learned programmes are normally only available to a small group of primary, in-house stakeholders. This reduces their effectiveness, stifling efficiency and impacting project success. To fully recognise and capture their benefit, the communication of lessons-learned programmes must be extended to all relevant stakeholders. The communication, however, must occur only in such a way that it does not jeopardise the company’s investment or unnecessarily benefit its competitors.
 The idea
Experiential knowledge comes from many sources. It can come from the owner, operator, constructor, designer, supplier, manufacturer, and the project management team, to name a few. Failure to capture the knowledge from these global project sources is failure to fully realise the value of all available assets.
Therefore, lessons-learned programmes must be enhanced to capture all pertinent information, and ensure that it is easily accessible to the right people, at the right time, in ways that measurably improve performance. This requires a well-defined process that is facilitated by appropriate technological infrastructure.
The process mandates the inclusion of all appropriate stakeholders, internal and external, while the infrastructure actively supports and ensures that the requisite knowledge is readily accessible when needed and collectible when generated. Furthermore, both the process and the infrastructure must have the ability to sanitise sensitive information without reducing the value of the lesson.
Enhancing the platform allows life cycles to significantly expand the pool of knowledge resources from which lessons are drawn. Additionally, it allows a life cycle to share its own knowledge assets with its contractors, designers, suppliers, etc., resulting in a more efficient project development and execution process. The impact will be decreased costs, condensed schedules, improved communication, and a reduction in rework and costly, repeated mistakes.
Mature lessons-learned programmes are a hallmark of project delivery life cycles that implement a continuous improvement strategy. Therefore, the basis for the expanded process should be in place for the majority of life cycles. Granting access to all stakeholders, and supplying the infrastructure to allow that access, should be a relatively simple IT exercise. Proper sanitisation of the existing database and new lessons will require more significant research and evaluation.
 The impact
Knowledge-based assets, and their proven competitive advantage, are seen as a key step to addressing how evolving market conditions are shifting the focus of project execution from schedule attainment to capital efficiency.
Lessons-learned programmes preserve institutional knowledge and communicate experience that can potentially reduce project risk and improve efficiency and performance. Optimising their effectiveness, and maximising their use, are key to realising their ultimate value. This optimisation will translate into savings across the entire project, and facility, life cycle.
The expansion of the pool of stakeholders provides several advantages to the lessons-learned process. First, increasing the resource pool will increase the number and scope of available lessons. Extending beyond the owner’s focus to include design and construction contractors, manufacturers and suppliers, inspection, safety, quality, etc. will facilitate the capture of knowledge that goes beyond mere project execution.
Second, sharing a life cycle’s lessons learned with all project stakeholders will increase their opportunity for use not only in the project, but in the life cycle of the facility. Finally, it is easy for internal stakeholders, particularly owner/operators, to become myopic: our way is the best way. By including external agencies that are often forced by business conditions to be on the cusp of competitiveness and efficiency, the latest improvements, techniques and processes can be captured at little to no expense for the proponent life cycle.
 The barriers to innovation – and the solutions
If knowledge transfer is to be successful, there must be an openness and richness in the communication of information and knowledge.
Crucial knowledge gained from a project is not always documented or communicated for subsequent use. Furthermore, knowledge-based practices can be unique, difficult to quantify and can become life cycle embedded over time. The result is that lessons learned, if done, are often resisted or only done superficially as their value is not widely recognised as contributing to project success.
This lack of recognition or valuation, particularly among internal stakeholders, must be changed to implement an effective programme. Methods for evaluating and measuring the effectiveness of the life cycle lessons-learned programme should be established such that the costs and benefits of the programme can be assessed on a periodic basis. This will allow management to monitor, improve and illustrate the value that lessons learned provide to the life cycle.
This same value must then be communicated to external stakeholders. Past history has indicated an unwillingness by contractors to participate in owner’s lessons learned programmes. This is in part due to the contracting arrangements between the primary stakeholder groups and the dynamics between them. Contract types reflect the risk allocation strategies used and extent of trust and cooperation between the parties, often at the expense of joint performance goals.
In addition, all relevant stakeholders should have ready access to lessons learned. Internal restrictions, contractor accessibility, firewalls and network connectivity should all be addressed with the intent of facilitating the free flow of information. Furthermore, the lessons and access media should be responsive and tailored to customer needs.
This includes a user-friendly interface, simple search strategies, and a common language and framework. Lessons learned read capability should be essentially unlimited for internal users and limited only by safeguard concerns for external stakeholders.
Finally, criteria must be established and enforced regarding levels of access and distribution for external stakeholders. Lessons learned must be reviewed for compliance with company guidelines and security requirements prior to approval and dissemination. They must be sanitised to ensure they cannot impact the perception or opinion of the company and its operating philosophy.
The programme, and its support infrastructure, must include proper systems integration, interface coordination, and access control and monitoring functions to ensure legal and contractual requirements are adhered to.
 The way forward
To realise the full value of the lessons-learned process, it is necessary to include all project stakeholders. Their inclusion must be facilitated by the owner life cycle to gain external stakeholders trust and buy-in. The value inherent in the process, to both owner and contractor, must be communicated and fully understood by all.
Furthermore, broader use of lessons learned should be mandated. Implementation and collection processes should take place at each project phase rather than at project end. There should be automatic and immediate dissemination of high-value or high-impact lessons rather than waiting for the next phase sessions. Lessons learned should also continually evaluate improvements to identify favourable or adverse programmatic trends. The results of such analysis should be used to focus improvement efforts and reduce adverse tendencies.
Finally, the key to achieving success is full management commitment from all life cycles. There should be motivation, recognition and continuous feedback on the process and its impact on the life cycle. Its use must go beyond a best practice and become an operational philosophy.
Syed Mateen Akhtar, Project Execution Optimization Division, Project Management Office Department, Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia
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