After Action Reviews: Not Just for the Military

by Joe Bachana, August 16, 2003

Members of the DPCI fulfillment team – who work together to complete client projects – perform a wide variety of tasks, including software development, business analysis and client training. Because of the differences in their responsibilities and the ongoing nature of projects, team members rarely had a chance to reflect on what they learned or implement changes in their processes while working on projects. To provide the opportunity for such self-correcting action, the fulfillment team instituted weekly meetings modeled after the military’s extremely successful After Action Review (AAR).

The US Army developed AAR in the 1970s as a learning tool for combat training exercises. Training groups use AAR to improve their understanding of the often confusing outcomes of those exercises. Through organized discussion, members and leaders reflect on the mission and help each other identify what happened, why it happened and how it happened. Discussion allows participants to discover lessons learned on their own, rather than being told by a superior. The members then apply these lessons to future missions to replicate successes or avoid failures.

DPCI’s adapted version, the weekly After Action meeting, has become an essential component of the company’s fulfillment processes. Each team member shares with the group his or her individual lessons learned, which can come from either positive or negative experiences, with the general agenda for each meeting set by the weekly status report. Programmers, field engineers and project managers will all have different types of lessons learned, but the discussion is framed to extract the elements of those lessons that can be useful to the team as a whole.

Usually discussion will center around one particular success or failure of the past week. All team members will have the opportunity to probe what events or conditions led to those results. When the team uncovers an important piece of the process, the feedback is incorporated into DPCI’s Project Engagement Methodology and Process Manual. At DPCI team members do not need to go through a complex bureaucracy to effect change – the team becomes a self-correcting mechanism, able to enact those changes on its own...

Although DPCI’s work is project-based, After Action meetings are more than status updates. The meat of the meeting is an open discussion of lessons learned, which Project Coordinator Karen Hauptman said she feels is the most important aspect of the After Action meetings. “If I share a mistake I’ve made and tell the group how to avoid making that same mistake, then my individual experience becomes a team experience,”she said. “In this way, we make sure we avoid repeated errors.”

These sessions also push the team to think critically about the previous week, beyond milestones reached and missed to the reasons why. Field Engineer Jeff Rigby said he feels reviewing and discussing these events helps employees open up to new ideas about their work.

“Talking things over helps people think of important aspects of their work they could or should be thinking about, but that they might not have encountered on their own, outside of the meeting setting,”he said. This process ensures employees take away as much as possible from each week of work. With each other’s help, they discover –and then institutionalize –the lessons they need to learn in order to maximize the team’s success.

Beyond this primary goal of perpetually revising the engagement process, After Action meetings help team members integrate their separate work and unify the team. “After Action meetings help employees avoid tunnel vision,”Hauptman said. “If someone is devoting 40 hours a week to one task, they can lose sight of what the rest of the team is doing and how the project is moving forward.”

Though project updates and deadlines are important, what makes the After Action meetings so beneficial is the team’s discovery and analysis of the positive and negative outcomes of their work, and the immediate injection of such lessons into the workings of the company. This continual self-evaluation has been an invaluable form of education for the fulfillment team. With each other’s guidance, team members make temporary project lessons into permanent parts of DPCI’s process, thereby enhancing their individual work and the team’s performance.

Employees at DPCI frequently adapt best practices and procedures from various business institutions, such as prior places of employment and the Project Management Institute. A few years ago, at the recommendation of an employee who was a former Marine, DPCI borrowed a chapter from the playbook of the United States Army. It turns out that the military, frequently referred to as the most organized institution in our society, has much to offer the business world.