posted 9 Aug 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 1
Learning while doing
The after action review process
In the second article of a three-part series Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell draw on their experience – and their recently published book Learning to Fly – to describe another of their practical tools for learning before during and after any business activity. This month’s article explains the after action review process the tool adopted by BP from the US Army to facilitate ‘learning while doing’.
Lessons from Lara Croft
Have you ever watched a child playing a video game and marvelled at how fast they learn?
I find myself doing exactly that with my nine-year old nephew Simon. I watch transfixed as he weaves an impossible path through a jungle or labyrinth cheating death by stopping exactly at the edge of each precipice knowing exactly how far when and what to jump on and where all the bonus energy jewels and poison potions lie.
Perhaps this is all easier that it looks. “Your turn Uncle Chris!”
There goes my reputation for being the cool uncle – 17 seconds of running some of it backwards and then straight down over the edge of the first canyon.
So how so they do it? I spend a fair proportion of my life working at a computer. I was doing it before Simon was born yet I’m the one who appears totally inept with JungleRaider III or whatever it was...
It wasn’t until I watched Simon tackle level 78 (it was a long game!) – the one that he’d never tackled before that things became clearer.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen!” “What if I try this?” “There was a jewel here in the last level.” “Supposing I jump up here – oops! OK up there then. Yeesssss!”
Once he was in new territory he switched from remembering the right sequence to learning. Continuously learning doing testing checking learning some more until he cracked the challenge and then on to the next level.
That’s the behaviour that is so often missing in business. People are happy enough to remember the right sequence – to know the rules of the game. People are happy to work on an important project and not ‘come up for air’ until the project closeout. Sometimes they need to be able to learn quickly and adapt in order to improve. It’s not good enough to wait for the end of the project for the review to draw out the lessons learned; something needs to change now.
Wouldn’t it be great if that sort of learning were routine in your organisation?
For many years the US Army has been applying a short sharp process known as an ‘after action review’ (AAR) to improve its ability to learn in the midst of action and improve team-working. One of the main drivers for this was its experience in the Vietnam conflict.
At the peak of the conflict it became apparent that foot soldiers in the field had far more knowledge about what was going on than headquarters. AARs were introduced to pass timely relevant learning within and between teams of soldiers at times when waiting for a full evaluation report would mean waiting too long.
To quote from the US Army handbook A Leader’s Guide to After Action Reviews: “An after action review (AAR) is a professional discussion of an event focused on performance standards that enables soldiers to discover for themselves what happened why it happened and how to sustain strengths and improve on weaknesses. It is a tool leaders and units can use to get maximum benefit from every mission or task. It provides:
- Candid insights into specific soldier leader and unit strengths and weaknesses from various perspectives;
- Feedback and insight critical to battle-focused training;
- Details often lacking in evaluation reports alone.”
When do you hold an AAR?
A common misconception regarding AARs is that they should only be carried out at the end of a formal project or discrete piece of work. This is not the case. AARs are actually designed to aid team and individual learning during the work process and can be conducted after any identifiable event. An event can be either an entire small action or a discrete part of a larger action for example a shift hand-over or a project planning meeting. Events have a beginning and an end an identifiable purpose and some metrics on which performance can be measured. (For learning after the project is complete see the article on ‘learning after doing’ in the nest edition.)
How do AARs work?
AARs are a simple way for individuals and teams to learn immediately from both successes and failures regardless of the length of the task in question. The learning is by the team for the team. The format is very simple and quick – it’s a ‘pencil and paper’ or flipchart exercise. In an open and honest meeting usually no longer than 20 minutes each participant in the event answers four simple questions:
- What was supposed to happen?
- What actually happened?
- Why were there differences?
- What did we learn?
Team learning and building trust and team integrity are equal objectives of the process. Our experience was that the simplicity of the process and the low time requirements were key to its acceptance. To quote from a supervisor at Toledo Refinery in Ohio: “There are times when you think we don’t have time to do this then you do it and think we don’t have time not to do this.”
What a fantastic quote. We often struggle to break into peoples’ routines when we introduce new initiatives processes and ways of working because the burden is simply too great.
Take a few minutes and reflect on a task you did yesterday. Can you imagine it? Can you remember what was said? How did you feel? Now answer the four AAR questions.
What does that tell you about what you could do differently tomorrow? That is what you can get from a small amount of personal reflection. Just imagine what a team could achieve by taking time out to reflect similarly on what they have achieved.
AARs at BP
AARs are simple to remember and simple to use. Because of this ease of use they became quickly adopted and implemented by operations staff at several different parts of our business. Here are the seven steps that we used when introducing AARs to BP.
1. Hold the AAR immediately
AARs are carried out immediately while all of the participants are still available and their memories are fresh. Learning can then be applied right away even on the very next day.
In BP Vietnam AARs were held immediately after every meeting with the Vietnamese authorities as a means of building up knowledge of the negotiation process.
“Each team had a 15-minute debrief using the AAR format after each discussion with the government. This was a very powerful tool within the team. They could look back at what they did and change what they were doing the next day.” (Bruce MacFarlane knowledge manager BP Vietnam.)
Try and plan the AAR to fall within the allotted time for the event so it doesn’t appear as an add-on. Include the AAR in the agenda of a meeting rather than introducing it as an afterthought.
2. Create the right climate
The ideal climate for an AAR to be successful is one of openness and commitment to learning. AARs are learning events rather than critiques. They certainly should not be treated as personal performance evaluations. There can only be one poor performer in an AAR: the one who is not candid both about things that went well and things that did not.
Everyone in the event participates and everyone is on equal footing. The US Army describe the notion of ‘pinning your stripes to the door’ and within the construct of the AAR process junior soldiers feel completely free to comment on and challenge the actions and instructions of senior staff. This openness is seen as a vital part of the process of building team integrity. For this team integrity to flourish there should be no spectators no management oversight – just participants who have earned their right to comment by being part of the action.
3. Appoint a facilitator
The facilitator of an AAR is not there to ‘have’ answers but to help the team to ‘learn’ answers. People must be drawn out both for their own learning and the group’s learning. What you are trying to get to is what the Army calls ‘ground truth’ and a facilitator should be able to guide the team to this point – navigating towards some of the unspoken issues.
Sometimes however a facilitator is needed to set the climate of the meeting. The facilitator ensures the meeting is open and that blame is not cast. He/she must also make sure the process is quick and simple and owned by the participants. One of the key success factors in an AAR is that everyone has a chance to speak.
The following quote illustrates the power of this factor when working with a multicultural team: “Generally the British are the only ones to speak so facilitation of the AAR is crucial. I made them answer the AAR questions round the table. You have to try and make the team leader shut up! I got a Vietnamese or a Norwegian to answer the questions first. Obviously I couldn’t facilitate all of the meetings so I excused myself from the process. I said: ‘AARs are for the people in the team – I am here to facilitate the conversation.’ I turned up to the AAR and made sure the person leading the AAR was not the team leader. Then I pushed my chair as far back as I could but ensured everyone had their say.” (Bruce MacFarlane knowledge manager BP Vietnam.)
4. What was supposed to happen?
AARs are very straightforward. The facilitator starts by dividing the event into discrete activities each of which had (or should have had) an identifiable objective and plan of action. The discussion begins with the first activity: ‘what was supposed to happen?’ An important discussion follows until all have shared their understanding of what was actually supposed to happen. This is often the most revealing part of the process. Unless there was a clear well communicated and unambiguous objective and plan then it is likely that different members of the team have a different understanding of what was supposed to happen. In this event a successful outcome is unlikely.
Facilitator’s notes: try asking people to quickly write down their own personal understanding of what was supposed to happen on a scrap of paper. After a couple of minutes ask them to read it back to the group.
The question ‘what was supposed to happen?’ should be equivalent to ‘what were the objectives of the activity?’ For example when reviewing a team meeting ‘what was supposed to happen?’ may be better treated as ‘to decide and gain team buy-in to the 2001 strategy’ than dwelling on details such as ‘we were supposed to start at 8.30 take a 15 minute break for coffee’ and so on.
5. What actually happened?
This means the team must understand facts about what happened – the US Army refer to this as ‘ground truth’. Nothing sobers an exaggerated view of an event more than one’s own words or actions played back for all to see and hear. Remember though that ‘ground truth’ is there to identify a problem not a culprit.
Facilitator’s notes: this part of the process is vital and can be contentious at times as people move from theory into reality. Don’t rush it. Sometimes people will dwell on the mundane aspects of an event when there may be a deeper underlying issue that they find difficult to talk about as a team. If you can encourage one person to make a more personal disclosure about how they felt rather than simply what happened it can have the effect of ‘unblocking’ the process allowing more open exchange to occur.
6. Now compare the plan with reality
The real learning begins as the team of teams compares the plan to what actually happened in reality and determines ‘why were there differences?’ and ‘what did we learn?’ Successes and shortfalls are identified and discussed. Action plans are then put in place to sustain the successes and improve upon the shortfalls.
Facilitator’s notes: try asking people to quickly write down one key learning for themselves to take away from the meeting. Often the act of writing it down will help the participants focus on what’s important and memorise the learning for future events. It may be necessary to question quite deeply during this section repeating the question ‘why was this?’ in order to get to the underlying reasons.
7. Recording an AAR
Recording the key elements of an AAR clarifies what happened and compares it to what was supposed to happen. It facilitates sharing of learning experiences within the team and provides the basis for a broader learning programme in the organisation.
AARs generate summaries of learning points that can have high value for the team. That value is often specific to the team in the particular context of the event being reviewed. Hence in our experience AARs are not shared widely – they are primarily learning for the team.
It is useful to capture a record of the AAR points and agreed actions to remind the team of the lessons that were identified. A typical example of this is a two-day meeting or workshop. At the close of day one a participant conducts a 15-minute AAR on the outcomes of that day and the learning points would be captured on a flip chart. At the start of the second day this flip chart is referred to by the team as a reminder enabling them to build the lessons of the previous day into their current activity.
Facilitator’s notes: the reality is that in most organisations there is a reluctance to share lessons beyond the immediate team but there is a willingness to share the corrective actions taken. The key learning points from an AAR are valuable because they are timely – they represent things as they are today rather than as the product of an audit report. For this reason it is always worth asking the question: ‘is there anyone else with whom we could share what we’ve learned?’
Power comes from simplicity
In introducing AARs to parts of BP people were repeatedly struck by the simplicity of the four questions and the fact that the US Army had institutionalised the process so effectively. One memorable photograph showed soldiers conducting an AAR (complete with flip charts!) in the jungle after a day’s action. What possible excuse could a refinery operator or a team leader have for not creating the space for an AAR? Mitch Bowman from Toledo Ohio is one such leader who quickly saw the value of AARs to his refinery operations: “This process saves a lot of money big money. A lot of times guys see problems coming before their supervisors do. And many won’t say anything because it’s not their job and no one asks. So the problems happen – there is downtime big losses. The AAR lets those things come out ahead of time just because you’re asking.”
‘Just because you’re asking.’ That is the key point. AARs create the space – just 15 minutes of it – to ask the key questions
One of the most powerful examples of AARs having an impact was in the construction of over 100 retail sites – petrol filling stations – across Europe in 1997. BP worked with its contracting partner Bovis on this major project and Bovis applied the AAR process after each activity for example pouring in the concrete foundations or setting up the pumps. These AARs captured timely lessons that could be applied immediately to the next retail site. By the time the construction programme was completed Bovis acknowledged that learning tools like AARs had helped to reduce service station build time by two weeks and slash the cost by five per cent.
To make the Army’s learning philosophy more tangible we enlisted the help of retired US Army colonel Ed Guthrie. There are times when the tacit knowledge bound up in a practitioner is far more valuable than any number of written facilitators guides so we tracked down the ‘real McCoy’.
Ed flew with us to several BP sites around the world and captured the imagination of even the most sceptical of engineers with his colourful war stories.
What struck home most to Keith a member of the team who accompanied Ed to Scotland was the sense of incompleteness Ed felt if he hadn’t conducted a personal AAR on his day’s activities. Before the plane had left Edinburgh airport Ed had already produced a scrap of paper and started to ask those four important questions.
Although we haven’t yet embedded AARs to the same extent as the Army they are widely used across BP’s activities. Whether a refinery operations team an internal workshop or a meeting with contractors – every day somewhere in the company those four questions are being asked. What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Why was there a difference? What have we learned?
In next month’s magazine Geoff and Chris conclude this series and describe the tool BP applies for ‘learning after doing’ – the retrospect.
Learning to Fly was reviewed in the July/August edition of Knowledge Management.