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Lessons Learned

If you have been working in the project management industry for even a short amount of time, chances are that you have heard the term “lessons learned”. The Project Management Institutes PMBok Guide Version 7 defines lessons learned as “The knowledge gained during a project, which shows how project events were addressed or should be addressed in the future, for the purpose of improving future performance.”

Over the years, I have embraced the idea that no single person knows everything about the details of a project. We need a team of diverse project specialists from many disciplines to come together to successfully execute a project. Even the most seasoned 30-year veteran on the team will learn some lessons during project execution. This is due to the dynamic nature of a project and the fact that there are no two truly identical projects. Something that went right on one project could become a complete catastrophe on a similar project in a different region. We naturally learn lessons as we complete day-to-day activities. We take these lessons with us from project to project and implement them so that they don’t become issues in future projects.

Some key lessons that I have personally learned over the years are:

  • Don’t add so much detail to the schedule that it becomes unmanageable.

  • Ensure the project warehouse for material inventory and allocation is adequately staffed and trained.

  • Address conflict in the workplace quickly and with empathy.

  • Don’t spend too much time in the office and in meetings. Seek every opportunity to talk to people about the project. Take tours of the site regularly and interview people about their concerns.

  • Do not underestimate the complexity of a brownfield site. Spend the necessary time and money to conduct field surveys of existing conditions.

  • “Trust but verify.” Periodically spot-check key performance indicators.

  • Take the time to identify all the relevant internal and external project stakeholders.

  • Address poor performance and/or productivity promptly.

  • Make sure all team members know the objectives of the project.

  • Have a good project execution plan and update it periodically. Team members come and go at different phases, and we forget that they need to reference the PEP to understand the project.

A previous company that I worked with didn’t like to capture any lessons learned. They were considered “admissions of guilt”. It was perceived that there could be a claim if the client knew that we were learning lessons while performing the contracted services. Sure, there are some basic project management lessons that we shouldn’t be learning regularly, but there could be innovative ways of performing tasks that save companies work hours and money. These lessons learned should be captured and shared with other projects, used to revise procedures or guidelines, and shared with the appropriate team members.

Many teams and organizations have embraced the idea of discussing and collecting lessons learned but may lack the discipline or time to collect and share the data. Lessons learned should be captured through all phases of the project and will be forgotten if a formal process does not exist or if project management is not interested. The Project Management Institute PMBOK V7 recommends that a lesson learned register be maintained and reviewed periodically. This register should be a part of the project closeout documentation and made available to all interested stakeholders and future projects. Any recommendations for improved processes should be noted with the appropriate action taken; however, good lessons learned that are occurring on projects should be shared with other projects as soon as they are discovered. I like the idea that project managers from different projects in execution periodically meet and discuss their respective lessons learned register.

In closing, we hire and retain qualified project managers and specialists to perform tasks. We also have vendors, contractors, and consultants involved with the execution. Project Managers should be interested and concerned with collecting lessons learned from their projects. Owner, EPCM, and contracted service organizations should also have an interest in continuous improvement and the capturing of lessons learned. The project manager should have a formal process and communicate it to the team as to how and when lessons learned will be logged, reviewed, and shared. As a project manager or individual team contributor, I challenge you to ask some of your colleagues about some of their lessons learned on your current project.

As always, I am looking forward to your thoughts and questions on lessons learned.


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