What is a lessons learned document in PMI

What is a lessons learned document in PMI?

Last updated on 06th Oct 2020, Artciles, Blog

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The Project Management Institute describes lessons learned as knowledge and understanding acquired via experience. These lessons may be positive ones, such as a project delivered on time and without exhausting the budget, or they may be negative, such as a blown budget and inferior deliverables. What matters is that they-

  • Are factually correct
  • Have a real impact on team operations
  • Identify a decision, design, or process that supports a positive result or reduces the potential for failure

Lessons learned in project management provide the most benefit when they are documented, communicated, and archived after all project participants have been able to confirm or question the conclusions.

Below are some lessons learned examples in different categories.

  • Supply Management. The project manager was not fully involved with the contract preparation process, so when a contract was finally awarded to a supplier, it did not include everything that was needed for the project. The result was a document modification that set back the project kickoff by over a week. The lesson learned was that the project manager must be involved in all supply contract preparation and sign-off.
  • Team Management: The project manager asked for and received approval to recognize and reward successful teamwork by arranging a catered lunch after achieving a project milestone. Team members were more enthusiastic about their work and supportive of one another, so the decision was made to institute some type of reward for successful completion of key stages.

Why Lessons Learned Is Important

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If your project experienced a catastrophic failure due to scope creep, budget overruns, a product that fell below expectations, or any other problem, the only way to prevent the same outcome in the future is to: 

  • Understand what went wrong and why
  • Identify what can be done differently in the future

The same principle applies to successful projects: when you know what went well and why, you can duplicate the appropriate steps across all your teams and yield positive results with other projects. 

How is Document Lessons Learned

In my opinion, lessons learned should not be confined to the project wrap-up. As the saying goes, there’s no time like the present. The best time to document something is immediately after it happened, otherwise key information can be accidentally forgotten or, in the case of negative outcomes, intentionally glossed over. 

These are the steps I take. You may do it differently, but there’s no right or wrong way as long as valid and effective lessons learned document results.

  • Solicit information. Everyone on my teams knows that if something happens, whether it be good, bad, or ugly, I want to hear about it. Lessons learned must be a collaborative undertaking in order to be effective. Everyone knows that I’m more interested in collecting information than passing judgment, so there are days when input is overwhelming, but the time spent documenting everything is well worth the effort.
  • Publish a report. Once all information is collected, examined, and revised as needed, I create a PDF and distribute it so that everyone involved, from the team to the upper management, is aware of and understands all lessons learned.
  • Store the report in a central location. A lessons learned document is meant to guide future projects, which is impossible if you don’t make it readily available. I keep all of my reports in a central location so that other project managers can adopt successful routines and avoid pitfalls from previous projects.

Documentation of lessons learnt should include:

  • Naming the scope of the lesson (e.g., graphic design shortcuts that expedite image processing)
  • A description of the problem or success (with lessons learned for software projects, this could be adding new features without significantly driving up cost)  
  • The impact on the project (e.g., the deadline was missed or outstanding results were achieved without exhausting the budget.)
  • The process improvement recommendations (lessons learned).

All reports should consist of the information received during the lessons learned session and be distributed to all participants, who should be given enough time to review them and either confirm their accuracy or offer corrections. Once the report is finalized, send a copy to the entire project team and store it with the other project documentation.

When you prepare a project summary for the senior project stakeholders, such as your boss, include an overview of what went well and what needs to be improved. You can include the report as an email attachment or offer to make a copy available if they need more information.

When to Conduct Lessons Learned

If someone asked me when to conduct lessons learned, I’d say, “Early and often.”

I know project managers who make lessons learned part of the wrap-up meeting, but I think it’s valuable at all stages of a project. My teams have interim lessons learned at the end of each milestone, with the goal of recognizing what is working and what isn’t, so that we can adjust right away and improve our work and the overall project. 

Challenges With Project Lessons Learned

All teams should be recording lessons learned, both positive and negative, as the project unfolds, but too many of them either don’t do it because there is no defined process for doing so or they don’t act on what they learn. Unless you document them and have a system in place to make use of them, it can be hard (if not impossible) to keep track of lessons learned.

There Is No Defined “Lessons Learned” Process in Place

Without a defined process in place, don’t be surprised if the people on your team don’t capture lessons learned. They will solve the problem or feel good about the success, but it ends there and no one benefits from their new understanding.

They Capture Lessons Learned But Don’t Use Them

This is another common problem. As soon as a team member encounters success or failure, they capture the details that are turned into lessons learned at the end of the project. The project manager creates a document that is filed neatly away with the other project data and never sees the light of day. No one learns from these good or bad experiences and nothing changes.

How to Apply Lessons Learned

According to the Project Management Institute, applying lessons learned is a methodology consisting of three stages:

  • Analyzing: All lessons learned must be analyzed and organized for future application of results. This step, which identifies the underlying reason or condition that causes something to happen, provides a better understanding of how to repeat successes and deter a similar failure.
  • Storing: Lessons learned need to be stored in a project repository for future use. The input form should include fields like category (e.g., software development, marketing), the lesson learned, action taken, and root cause. The repository at my agency can be searched by keyword, which makes it a lot easier to access all relevant lessons for your project.
  • Retrieving: Before attending risk planning sessions for a new project, the manager retrieves all relevant lessons learned documents and uses them to identify possible risks and develop mitigation strategies.
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With a lessons learned process in place, you can treat each project as a learning experience and share all knowledge and insights with other managers in your company. As you apply the lessons, they become part of the operational strategy and initiate changes that everyone will thank you for.

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