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Effective for police, the after action review enables improvement without blame
Five years ago, at noon on May 7, 2007, I sat in the canteen at the Los Angeles Policy Academy in Elysian Park, just north of downtown Los Angeles, awaiting the arrival of Captain Robert S. Hauck, then second in command of the West Los Angeles Bureau.
Some sort of ceremony had just concluded, and I was definitely the sore thumb sticking out: no dress blues, no badge, and definitely no sidearm. I had worked closely with Hauck on a number of projects, and he had something to tell me. Little did I know the magnitude.
As he sat down at the counter, I could tell the casual lunch we had planned simply to catch up on what we’d both been up to during the six months or so since he had been promoted to Captain II and placed in a new leadership role was off the agenda. He wasted no time: “You saw the news last week, right?” I had been traveling out of town in the Midwest, but the local event had reached the level of national media coverage, complete with detailed video footage, so I knew what he meant.
On May 1, 2007, the previous Tuesday, what had begun as a peaceful demonstration at L.A. City Hall and later moved to the nearby MacArthur Park—one of the three areas targeted by then Chief of Police William Bratton for focused community policing—had ended in a clash between demonstrators and the police, resulting in a use of force, something that is generally not good, especially in the supersensitive, class-divided city of Los Angeles.
By LAPD standards it’s the kind of action that is designed to be used only as a last resort under imminent threat of life and limb. The protest had been about immigration reform, a repeat performance of the large rally held the year before. Permits had been issued, so the march was legal, and Bratton had deployed an extra 400 traffic officers, which was about twice the number dispatched across the city on a normal day. The Transportation Authority had blocked off streets, detoured bus routes, and bolstered subway service.
What the video and still images showed was a phalanx of officers in riot gear sweeping through the park, manhandling protesters and even some reporters. What started it off was a small group of demonstrators had blocked a street, which violated the terms of their permit, and provoked the police into taking immediate action. Things escalated to melee status, and soon the protestors, faces hidden behind bandanas, began taunting officers and throwing bottles, batteries, full soda cans, and rocks. Officers formed a skirmish line, using batons and firing foam rubber bullets meant to hurt but not injure.
Still, from the video, it had appeared to be excessive, with anyone in the way—whether they were protesting or not—getting a whack of some kind. The only serious injuries were suffered by the officers, but by the afternoon of the following day, both Bill Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had promised an “after action report” (AAR) to be prepared and issued by the end of the month.
“I got tapped to do the AAR,” Hauck told me. “Direct to Chief McDonnell.” As he tells me this, his cell phone rings, and it’s his new boss. I had met First Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, Bratton’s right-hand man and chief of staff, at the same time I had met Bratton himself. McDonnell had been with Bratton in New York, and Boston before that.
“I’ve now got three weeks,” Hauck said. “I’ll be busy. And already it’s not looking so good.” He tells me in confidence that based on what he’s already learned during the intervening few days, things did not go down right.
An AAR is a formal written report of an after action review and the outcome of the “assess” phase of the community policing problem-solving discipline known as scan-analyze-respond-assess (SARA). It is an iterative cycle, and like all problem-solving methodologies, based on the scientific method and built on how humans learn through the cycle of questioning, hypothesizing, experimenting, and adjusting.
What makes SARA work is the emphasis on observation and reflection. When these are the focus, action becomes more surgical, and more can be done with, and for, less. It is keen observation and reflection that can temper excess acting and adding. Where observation is an outward look at the facts before you take action, an AAR is a reflection, an inward look at the facts—what happened after it has happened.
AARs were developed by the U.S. Army, and are such a part of Army methodology that the term has actually become a verb. As one soldier told me years ago, “We always AAR whatever we do.” An AAR is meant to be a learning device.
“The Army’s after action review is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised,” says MIT’s Peter Senge.
In the Army, an AAR is a standard operating procedure. The way an AAR works normally is that it is a regular meeting held after every key milestone in the course of any ongoing deployment of resources. The word “regular” is important here, because AARs are not meant to be special studies, or post-mortems conducted only at the conclusion of an action, or conducted only when something goes wrong. It’s the regularity of review of both good and bad outcomes that builds the learning discipline.
An AAR asks and answers just three very simple questions: First, what was supposed to happen? Second, what actually happened? Third, what accounts for the differences, if there were any? The answers enable change and provide the framework for the learning needed for future improvement.
But in the deep hierarchical structure and command system of military and paramilitary organizations, learning doesn’t occur without open and transparent communication in a setting where it’s safe to tell the truth. So to make sure that the truth does get told in the meeting, there are some rules.
For example, attendance by all involved is mandatory. If someone can’t make it, or doesn’t show up, the AAR doesn’t happen. Also, there is no outside facilitation because you don’t need that kind of expertise to answer three simple questions. There is no blaming process involved, only a focus on goals, actions, and results. Finally, specific AAR facts are confidential and to be used only for assessment, learning, and improvement. In other words, a personnel action arising from the AAR is not allowed.
Although the LAPD did not follow the Army AAR protocol exactly, I was nonetheless struck by the close similarity of an AAR and the Toyota practice of hansei, a Japanese word meaning reflection and introspection.
In Japanese culture, hansei is the rigorous review conducted after action has been taken. Like an AAR, true hansei is essentially a reality check, irrespective of performance or outcome. In other words, a shortfall in meeting expectations is treated exactly the same as exceeding expectations.
As a general rule, you should always meet your objectives. If you do, you must understand why, and if you don’t, you must understand why not. If you are conducting regular hansei, like a regular AAR, you have the opportunity to adjust your interim goals and game plan, based on progress. Hansei is about thinking, not acting, and is intended to foster deeper learning and insight.
Hansei has roots in Eastern philosophy and is considered an important skill to be mastered. Japanese school children are taught from an early age how to perform hansei, and it is a significant tool used to improve one’s self. When you think about it, the practical application of hansei is an AAR.
So what did Hauck discover?
Essentially that the chain of command broke down, and that the ensuing attempt to impose order followed suit. The rigid nature of the police standards actually led to confusion over the course of action. The commander issuing orders was not on the ground, where the action was being initiated. The deputy chief and the highest rank responsible for the deployed officers was on the ground, but not issuing orders. That led to confusion over who was actually in charge.
When the order to disperse came, not only was it in English for what was predominantly a Spanish-speaking crowd, but there was confusion over whether it was intended for the entire park or just where the violence was occurring. It was, in the end, a case of too much information coming in from a source without frontline observation on the one hand, and not enough information to close a gap logically on the other.
The result was a distorted, overboard respond phase in SARA. The ensuing AAR enabled crowd-handling improvements, many of them life-saving, to be made.
As for Hauck, he went on to become second in command of LAPD’s Metropolitan Division, the unit deployed in the MacArthur Park incident, commanding the elite SWAT team, for more than a year. He is now retired from the LAPD after more than 20 years on the job, and as of this writing, the chief of police in a small town in east Texas.
Reprinted with permission from http://EDITInnovation.com