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Lessons Learned: Questions to Ask

What do organizations that have consistently high levels of project success have in common? They conduct lessons learned discussions and create project archives during the project close-out phase. The lessons learned documentation includes what went right, what went wrong and what the project manager and team could have done better. The archives also include plans from previous projects and data on the costs and hours of work for every task in those projects. That data lets future project managers use historical data for analogous estimating, which is enormously accurate. Project managers who make estimates by the seat of their pants with no historical basis produce inaccurate estimates. Lessons Learned Main Page

lessons learned

Documenting the lessons learned is an important step that is often cut short during project close-out. That may be because of project or overhead costs and the crunch of follow-on projects for the various team members. But this step is critical to improving future projects in the organization. A best practice identified in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)® is to include lessons learned in the baseline schedule for the project. The project manager should prepare for the lessons learned task. The lessons learned approach may vary depending on the size of the project or your organization’s processes. The lessons learned may be gathered at milestone points during the project life-cycle, annually for a multi-year project, or at the end of the project. Some approaches to generate or gather lessons learned include questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, guided discussions, and meetings. Meetings may be held face-to-face, via teleconference, or video-conference. When the lessons learned are scheduled to be captured, the project member with the lessons learned task should schedule the resources and distribute the materials, agenda, and schedule. Lessons learned should be approached from a positive aspect, as gripe sessions seldom produce effective solutions. The team may cover areas for improvement in a positive frame. One may ask some of the following questions when discussing the project events. These questions may help the team to focus the discussion to improve the organization’s processes and OPA for future projects.

•           What worked well for this project or the project team?

•           What didn’t work well for this project or the project team?

•           What should be done over or differently?

•           What surprises did the team handle during the project?

•           What project events were not anticipated?

•           Were the project goals attained? If not, what changes would help to meet goals in the future?

Naturally, these are not the only questions and possibly not the official way to ask and develop lessons learned. But the questions are a reflection point for project managers and team members. Your organization may have some lessons learned questions and processes already developed, just ask. You will gain value from the experiences of your predecessors and increase your chances for executing a successful project.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said George Santavana. How can we avoid repeating past project failures if we don’t have lessons learned from previous projects? When I did a cursory review of the lessons learned database, I did not pay close attention to the content. The titles seemed unimportant and not related to the work that I would be performing. But I learned differently. You may halesson learnedve guessed the results of my experience. I repeated several of the mistakes made by my predecessors that I could have avoided. Had I noted the issues and the course corrections of my predecessors, I would have added this knowledge to my tool kit and saved a good deal of my team’s effort and repeat work. I did not realize this until I was preparing lessons learned from my project. I looked at former lessons learned documents to determine how to prepare my notes and I found several mistakes that I had repeated. I placed special emphasis on the title of my lessons learned to gain the interest of the casual reader.

A great outcome of the lessons learned activities is improvements in your organizational processes and the addition of artifacts to our library of resources. While studying for my master’s degree, I quickly learned that a very important characteristic to understanding an organization’s culture and success is to view the artifacts. Yes, the artifacts is a term you may recognize if you work with many of the industry standard quality practices, such as International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9001, Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI), and many others. In project management language, we call an artifact an Organizational Process Asset (OPA). The OPAs help us to reuse methods from previous successes and to avoid the pitfalls of past failures. These artifacts or OPAs help us to jump start success.

I did find many failed projects in organizations’ artifacts. Upon closer analysis, I found limited detail and little follow-through to engage the experts in each of the projects. I located the organizations that provide the services needed for these projects. I researched the documentation requirements to engage these experts. I used the OPA and prepared the supporting documents and details in the project folder formats of each of the organizations. When I invited the various teams to provide service support, the engineers were appreciative of the project folder format and materials. The project folders enabled the visiting engineers to be more effective in developing an appropriate solution. We successfully executed many of the previously failed projects by using the appropriate OPA. We followed the organizational processes to acquire the resources. Using the OPA to prepare the materials enabled the project team to easily digest the material and led to the efficient execution and ultimate success of each project.

Our project management courses teach you what questions to ask during your lessons learned discussions. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

At the beginning of yourncourse, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management
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Lessons Learned Project Management

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Lessons Learned Project Management is a process that is often bypassed. That’s because project managers and team members are sick of talking about the project they have worked on for months. Skipping the lessons learned process says to your team, “This project is too small to do any of that fancy lessons learned stuff. Let’s save some time and just start the next project.”  What you are “saving” is possibly 60 minutes of time. What you are losing is valuable information about what went well and what did not during every phase of the project you just completed.  The lessons learned information includes your project’s plans, schedules and templates. It also includes estimates of time and duration that are realistic, not “plucked from the sky.” All this lessons learned data from past projects is used to avoid “reinventing the wheel” on future projects.

An organization that doesn’t require a lessons learned process is denying itself the opportunity to improve overall project performance by learning from earlier mistakes. If project managers don’t conduct lessons learned meetings and archive their plans, schedules, templates and forms, the next project managers will waste many hours.  Even worse, they and the team will make the same mistakes on future projects because they didn’t learn from past projects. Lessons Learned Main Page

Lessons Learned Project Management Process: Step One

Here’s how the Lessons Learned Project Management process should work. First, you need to assemble your project team, the sponsor and maybe a stakeholder or two. In that meeting, you identify any mistakes made on the just-completed project and things you could do better next time. It’s always good to start by getting the team’s feedback on how you did as the project manager. Ask for their opinions about your performance in initiating the project, developing the plan, creating the schedule, estimating costs and duration and solving problems. Then ask about how useful your status reporting was. In all those areas, ask how you could do better next time. Some project managers get defensive about the criticism and they don’t welcome the team’s suggestions. But your willingness to accept constructive criticism makes the others accept it when it’s their turn to get feedback on their performance.

 

Lessons Learned Project Management Process: Step Two

Lessons learned project managementThe Lessons Learned Project Management session is a project manager’s best opportunity to train a project sponsor. After taking your criticisms from the group, you might step through the stages of the project and ask everyone what they might have done better on planning, estimating and solving problems. Minor suggestions about how a sponsor’s time investment would have avoided a problem can have a big impact next time. You write down all the ideas for doing things better and send everyone a copy. The hope is that it will positively affect future behavior. Lessons Learned Questions

Lessons Learned Project Management Process: Step Three

Before you file away the lessons learned ideas and send everyone a copy, you have one more task.  Gather up the estimates of the work duration and cost you made during planning.  Then compile the data you have on how long each task actually took and how much it actually cost. That will help improve the estimates on similar projects in the future.  The easy way to archive it is to save your Microsoft Project® file. It is easy to store and access next time.  The last elements to save are the project plans you produced for the just-completed project. Having those available to use on the next project can save a lot of time.

Spending an hour of your time on the Lessons Learned Project Management process is  a wise investment that pays big returns on future projects.

You can enhance your project management skills and master the lessons learned project management process in our online project management courses. You begin whenever you wish and control the schedule and pace. You work privately with an expert project manager and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Critical Path Resources – Early Warning on Variances

The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks through your network. Therefore, the critical path tasks control the duration of the entire project. One day of slippage on a critical path task means your project will finish one day later. With that definition in mind, I’d like to talk about managing your critical path resources. That is, the people who are assigned to work on your critical path tasks.

We want to assign proven performers to critical path tasks. Other tasks in your project may have slack or float which allows those tasks to finish later than currently scheduled without affecting the duration of the entire project. But as I said before, if a critical path task finishes later, the project finishes later. If you have the flexibility to assign different people to critical path tasks, you should assign trainees to tasks that are not on the critical path. And the best people are your critical path resources. These people should be your early warning system about problems on critical path tasks. You want every team member to report a problem as soon as it comes to light. But on the critical path tasks, you want to be notified as soon as the faintest glimmer of a problem shows up so you can act to fix it.

Accordingly, managing critical path resources efficiently is a key design issue. Here is an example from my experience. I am an IT Project manager and during a planning phase, I was trying to write a perfect plan for a project to upgrade a system. There was a task on the critical path called “Final Upgrading System on the Live Server.” The duration of this task was two days and during that time, users would not be able to work on the system. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

Critical Path Resources To investigate, I spoke to the upgrading system implementer who said during those two days, we would enable the backup system on the backup server and make it ready for users to enter their daily work. However, he added, users would need to redo their work transactions on the live production once it was ready. Redoing transactions might require users to work more hours to enter the back load. I was thinking about utilizing the weekend to finalize this task so I contacted the Human Resources manager. I explained the issue and asked him for a solution. The HR Manager suggested paying overtime for the implementers. I said over time is a bad idea for managing projects because it increases the budget and the project management methodology does not recommend it. But I continued, I could talk with the implementers and suggest we give them with another two days off that they could add to another weekend. That would give them a long weekend vacation. We would count the business hours they spend during the weekend. The HR manger said it was a good idea. I told him I would also get approval from their direct manager. I got approval and commitment from the critical path resources, the HR Manager, and the functional department manager and documented all those commitments.

Consequently, the project plan was executed successfully within its planned budget, duration, scope and risk. Users did not redo their data entry work load and implementers went for a long weekend vacation. The case was archived as a lesson learned.

Learn how to use the critical path tool to quickly identify problems, efficiently use resources and cut the project duration in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Project Lessons Learned

The project lessons learned process is ineffective in most organizations. One project after another suffers from the same mistakes.  What is even worse is that the bigger the project failure, the less likely they are to learn from it.  The same issues that cause a project to fail also prevent the people involved from learning from the failure. Organizations need processes to make sure they don’t relive project failures. Let’s take a look at a typical project lessons learned session and then talk about the right way to do it.

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project Lessons Learned: Poking Through the Wreckage

You shuffled into your project lessons learned session, sick and tired of political games and finger-pointing. Twenty minutes later, you trudged out with the voices still echoing in your head:

  • “You’re responsible for us finishing late!”
  • “Me? You kept making changes. I’m surprised we ever finished!”
  • “You still aren’t finished; the garbage you gave us still doesn’t work!”
  • “What? We gave you what you asked for! But you didn’t train your people to use it”
  • “They need PhD’s to use what you built!”

You walked down the hall knowing this was your fault.  Sure, there were a few jerks involved and it would be easy to blame them. But a good project manager should be able to structure things to make even the jerks productive team members.

Even though scenes like this repeat themselves after every project, many organizations don’t improve their processes for doing projects. The same problems wreck one project after another.  But there is an alternative. What you need is a lessons learned process that gives the project managers an opportunity for continuous improvement.  The time you invest in your lessons learned process can positively affect projects that are underway. It can also reinforce the use of a consistent project management methodology.  You build the project lessons learned process in the following three stages. Lessons Learned Project Management

Project Lessons Learned: Stage 1 – Pre-Launch Peer Review

Our 4PM clients have increased their success by using peer reviews of projects that are nearing launch. That sounds fancier than it is. In this first stage of the project lessons learned process, project managers get feedback on a their plans from other PMs.  They have a meeting (in-person or online) to discuss a recent plan. That gives PMs the chance to share ideas and renew their understanding of the methodology.

The pre-launch stage is a busy time for project managers but it’s also the point at which correcting mistakes is least expensive.  The process is straightforward. The other project managers review the user’s or client’s business situation.  Then they Project Lessons Learnedindependently critique the project’s plan, scope, requirements, WBS, charter, accountability structure, team member assignments and the schedule.  Reviewing several project plans doesn’t take the other PM’s very long if the organization’s project management methodology emphasizes thinking , not creating paperwork.

In the project lessons learned session itself, the other PM’s ask questions and offer ideas. The project manager whose work is under review may or may not take them but they get the benefit of the ideas and opinions of other people engaged in the same type of work.  Every project manager suffers from tunnel vision as he or she works through the development of a detailed plan.  The thinking of other project managers who are not buried in all the detail is very helpful.  It’s easier for them to spot any disconnects between the user’s/client’s business problem and the project plan details.  It’s important to keep this conversation focused on “Are we doing the right project for this business problem?” and “Does the planned control process make sense for the desired business result and resources involved?”  The conversation should be at that high level and not sink into a technology debate.

Project lessons learned sessions  are effective in building consistency in the use of a project management methodology.  Compliance with project management standards tends to slip under the pressure of all the work to be done just prior to launch.  But when project managers know their peers will be reviewing their work, they comply at a point in the lifecycle where comments from the project office or standards people might otherwise be brushed aside. These pre-launch peer reviews are ideal for reinforcing the organization’s project management methodology.  You have the right people gathered and you’re dealing with real business situations and projects, not theoretical ideals.  So these sessions are good opportunities to renew people’s skills in using the organization’s project management methodology.

Project Lessons Learned: Stage 2 – Portfolio Management & Change Control 

The second stage in the project lessons learned process is regular (usually weekly) review of project variances. This can be at the end of the weekly status report or team meeting and after you have defined corrective acProject Meeting Rescuetion for the variances. You review the variances again and focus on how to avoid them in the future. You also identify other tasks or people who are likely to encounter the same issue so it can be avoided. The focus is on ways to avoid a repeat. It does not take long to identify the options.

To accomplish this project lessons learned review, the project methodology must give you a reliable method of identifying changes to the approved baseline schedule. You need a methodology that gives you objective measures of project progress plus the work and cost estimates to measure the variance.

Project Lessons Learned: Stage 3 – Project Team Culture and Leadership Style

The last stage of the project lessons learned is the periodic assessment of your leadership style and the culture of the project team. The work attitudes and effectiveness of the team members are strongly influenced by your leadership behavior. Even a professional team may suffer in silence about the project manager’s leadership and not take the risk of providing constructive feedback. Frank feedback is very useful so you have to make it safe for them to give it.

An effective technique is to ask the team to have lunch together once a quarter.  You don’t attend but you ask them to a write a summary of their consensus of your strengths and weaknesses. You should digest the information but not ask questions about it.  Most importantly you should not make them justify any of their negative findings. That makes you seem defensive. Good project managers act on negative feedback and make improvements. Bad PMs can’t handle the criticism so they dismiss it, learn nothing and never improve. Lessons Learned Questions

Project Lessons Learned: Summary

The three-stage project lessons learned process for project management improvement is an important element in moving the organization toward delivering consistently successful projects.  It also can contribute to developing consistently effective project managers.  We include this project lessons learned process in our project management methodology so organizations and their PMs get better over time and don’t repeatedly relive failures.

You can enhance your PM skills and master the project lessons learned process in our online project management courses. You work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Project Rescue

In many organizations,  saving failing projects is a regular part of the job of all project managers. Most PMs have had to rescue their own projects from time to time. In fact, one of the traits of superstar PMs is that they can bring their own projects back from the edge of defeat. So how should you do a project rescue? Enterprise Project Management Main Page

Let’s say that toward the end of your project’s planned time and budget your weekly monitoring of results shows a continuing slide toward overruns. You realize that continuing to hope for outstanding performances from a few team members will most likely not let the team catch up. Before you surrender and call the sponsor, there are a few things you can do to avoid failure.

Project Rescue: Continuous MonitoringSaving a failing project

First of all, continuous monitoring of your project’s schedule and cost with estimates to complete (ETC) is an essential part of all effective rescues for turning your project around and managing expectations. Let me give you an example. One of my projects still had about four months in duration but from my control sheets, my personal opinion, and the history of change requests and challenges, I was pretty sure that we would not deliver the entire scope that was originally agree upon. Here is my point. Because I had monitoring tools in place, and because I kept a personal log on where we were in the project, I was able to come to that conclusion a lot earlier than I would have if I would have not had these statistics in place.

Project Rescue: Clarity on Project Scope

Second, as I pointed out in one of my earlier posts, (Project Failure Warning Signs) I had a visual representation of the agreed scope in place and the supporting high-level deliverables. This picture was another component in my planning and forecasting toolbox. Using this picture, I was able to mark those components that were in danger of failing. Combined with my statistics, I was able to draw a picture of what was still possible. Project Failure

You can usually see when things start to turn against you and try to steer against those tendencies. However, in my case, my actions did not result in total victory. At one point, I had to tell my stakeholders that we had a problem at hand. What I would like to encourage you to do is this: when things don’t work out, the sooner you raise your concern the more time you have for implementing workarounds. Furthermore, if you are able to visualize what you have already accomplished and what is feasible by your determined project deadline, you are in a much better position than if you just inform your sponsor via email. In my situation, I was able to point out why we were behind, what we would be able to accomplish and how that would improve the company’s overall situation. I can’t point out this action often enough: visualize your arguments. With a picture of the original scope and the “realistic” scope at hand, I was able to show that even though we would not complete everything, we would complete the most important components. Project Catastrophes

Project Rescue: Work through Alternatives

In addition, since we raised the red flag early enough, we had enough time to work out alternatives and refocus our development team. My project has not yet finished but I am pretty sure that we will produce a result that will be more than acceptable, even though we didn’t hit a bull’s eye.

Project Rescue: Summary

In conclusion, I encourage you to do the following:

  • Have a clear project scope and supporting high-level deliverables
  • Continuously track your project progress. Visualize what you have already accomplished and what is feasible
  • Don’t just raise a red flag, visualize your arguments. Show what you can do and how this result will still improve your organization’s processes
  • Start working on alternatives and a fallback solution as early as possible. Don’t wait for someone else to point out the problems.

 

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How To: Post-Project Review

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

The post-project review processes are ineffective in most organizations. Consequently, they suffer from the same mistakes on one project after another. Even worse, the bigger the project failure, the less likely the organization is to learn from it. The same issues that cause a project to fail also prevent the people involved from learning from that failure. Organizations need processes to make sure they don’t relive project failures. Let’s take a look at a typical post-project review session and then talk about the right way to do it. Project Lessons Learned Main Page

Post-Project Review: Poking Through the Wreckage

You shuffled into your post-project review session, sick and tired of the political games and the finger-pointing. Twenty minutes later, you trudged out with the voices still echoing in your head:

    “No, you’re responsible for us finishing late!”
    “Me? You kept making changes. I’m surprised we ever finished!”
    “You still aren’t finished. The crap you gave us still doesn’t work!”

           “What? We gave you what you asked for! You just didn’t train your people to use it

           “They’d need PhD’s to use what you built!”

You walked down the hall knowing this was your fault. Sure, there were some jerks involved in the project and it would be easy to blame them. But you knew that a good project manager could structure things to make even the jerks productive.

As scenes like this repeat themselves after each project, the organization’s processes for doing projects don’t improve. The same problems wreck project after project. But there is an alternative.

Post-Project Review: Living Lessons Learned

What you need instead is a living lessons learned process that gives the organization and its project managers an opportunity for continuous improvement. The time you invest in your post-project review should also positively affect projects that are underway and reinforce the use of a consistent project management methodology. You gain these advantages with a living lessons learned process conducted in three stages.

Post-Project Review: Step 1 – Pre-Launch Peer Review

We have experienced good success with our 4PM.com clients using peer reviews of projects thatPost-Project Review are ready to launch. That sounds fancier than it is. This just means that PM’s get feedback on a their plan from other PM’s. Sometimes they hold a live web meeting to discuss a recent plan. That gives PM’s the chance to share ideas and renew their understanding of the methodology.

While the pre-launch stage is a busy time for project managers, it’s also the point at which correcting mistakes is least expensive. The process is straightforward. The other project managers review the business situation faced by the user or client. Then they independently critique the project’s strategic planning, scope statement, requirements, WBS, charter, accountability structure, team assignments and schedule. If the organization’s PM methodology places a premium on thinking (not paperwork), it does not take the other project managers very long to review several project plans.

In the review session itself, the other PM’s ask questions and offer ideas, which the project manager whose work is under review may take or ignore. The project manager gets the benefit of the thinking of other PM’s engaged in the same type of work. Every project manager suffers from tunnel vision as he or she works through the final development of their detailed plan. So the thinking of other project managers who are not buried in all the details is enormously helpful. They can spot disconnects between the user’s or client’s business problem and the project plan details. However, it is important to keep this conversation up at the project management level, focusing on “Are we doing the right project for this business problem?” and “Does the planned control process make sense for the desired business result and resources involved?” The conversation should not sink into a technology debate.

Sessions like these are effective in building consistency in the use of a project management methodology. Compliance with project management standards tends to slip under the pressure of all the work that must be done just before launch. But when project managers know their peers will be reviewing their work, they comply at a point early in the lifecycle when comments from the project office or standards people might otherwise be brushed aside.

These pre-launch peer reviews are ideal for reinforcing the organization’s project management methodology. The right people are dealing with real business situations and projects, not theoretical ideals. As a result, these sessions are good opportunities to renew people’s skills in using the organization’s project management methodology.

Post-Project Review: Step 2 – Corrective Action and Changes

The second step is regular (usually weekly) review of project variances. The PM and team members decide on corrective action on variances at the weekly status report meeting. Then the PM should go through the variances again. During this second round, they focus on how to avoid the same variances in the future. They also identify other tasks that are likely to have the same issue. The focus is on ways to avoid a repeat and it does not take long to identify the options.

To do this review, the project methodology must give PM’s a reliable method of identifying changes to the approved baseline schedule. The organization needs a methodology that gives the PM objective measures of project progress plus the work and cost estimates to measure the variance.

Post-Project Review: Step 3 – Team Culture and Leadership Style

The last step is the periodic assessment of the culture of the project team and the project manager’s leadership style. Obviously the project team members’ work attitudes and effectiveness are stroleadershipngly influenced by the leadership behavior of the PM. But even a professional team may suffer in silence about the PM’s leadership rather than take the risk of providing constructive feedback.

Constructive feedback is very useful so we have to offer a “safe” environment for team members to give it. An effective technique is to ask the team to have lunch together once a quarter without the PM. They write a summary of the PM’s strengths and weaknesses on which they reached consensus. The PM should digest the information but ask no questions about it. Most importantly, the PM should not ask them to justify any of the negative feedback. That makes the PM appear defensive. Good project managers act on negative feedback and make themselves better. Bad PM’s can’t handle the criticism and learn nothing.

Post-Project Review Summary

The post-project review is a three-step living lessons learned process for project management improvement. It is an important element in moving the organization toward delivering consistently successful projects because it is a process through the entire project lifecycle. It also contributes to developing a cadre of consistently effective project managers who get better over time and don’t repeatedly relive failures.

More information on lessons learned

We include this post-project review living lessons learned process in our project management methodology.  We teach it in our online project management certifications and training seminars for clients.