Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lessons learned captured in stories at Lawrence Livermore

Lessons learned practice involves examining projects for things that went wrong or could have gone better. The old name, postmortems, has been retired, I guess, because it was too graphic or too negative. Too bad. The best lessons-learned stories are from scrutinizing worst practice.

Every company tries to do lessons learned, but many fail because the exercise can easily degrade into a critique of the project team's performance rather than a search for better ways of working. The project team's defenses go up, and you get nowhere.

By contrast, read this from the web site of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the pre-eminent US government research labs. (UPDATE 24 March 08 - these links are no longer operable.)

Probably the very first “Lessons Learned” experience for Lab employees was the failure of Ruth, our first nuclear test. Rattled and discouraged from their efforts falling flat, scientists sat in a room after the test and waited for Professor Lawrence’s entrance and, most certainly, his scathing judgment of their failed efforts. When Lawrence finally burst into the room, his first words were, “Well, what did we learn from that?”

As you can imagine from the above, it takes a powerful learning culture and leadership to truly take advantage of the lessons-learned approach. And, as if to validate that thought, Lawrence Livermore has published some important lessons-learned stories on its web site. The stories stand out for their clarity, their openness and their unfailing humor. Here's the headline from one story: "During Project Pluto, scientists tested a flying nuclear reactor and ended up with a flying 600-pound nozzle."

The lessons-learned stories (six out of a hundred total in a priceless gallery of corporate narrative) are a treasure trove not only of "worst practices" but of evidence that exposing and confronting those practices is the most direct path to excellence. (UPDATE 24 March 08--sadly, links no longer operable. They were at http://www.llnl.gov/stories/about.html)

(Photo: the JASPER gas gun. Courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)