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Shobhendu Prabhakar


Ten Key Concepts to Maximize Returns From Lessons-Learned Programs

Keep it organized, accessible, useful, and simple

Published: Thursday, August 27, 2020 - 11:03

The “mantra” for continuous improvement is to learn from our mistakes. Not only learn but also take necessary actions and come up with strategies to prevent the recurrence of the same or similar mistakes. It is true for humans as well as for businesses. In business, especially in the oil and gas industry—due to engineering and installation complexities, vast supply chains, and high quality and safety risks—the lessons-learned (LL) program is a key part of the quality management system (QMS) and continuous improvement efforts.

Often, companies in the oil and gas industry have LL programs (systems and processes) in place. However, despite having LL programs, why are the same or similar mistakes are still being repeated. Why is this? Here are 10 key concepts that companies in the oil and gas industry and the personnel designing LL programs should bear in mind to ensure LL programs add value and are efficient, effective, and successful.

1. The LL system should be a civilized township. The LL system, which typically is a web-based system, must have lessons categorized by functions, subfunctions, processes, equipment, product, and services rather than just a massive compilation of the lessons. The metadata and key attributes of LL should be defined and input into the system in such a manner that a search for relevant lessons is easy, intuitive, and efficient. The LL system must be equipped with simple search methods and, more important, advanced search capabilities based on the needs of the users to produce effective search results.

For example, if the user is looking for lessons learned in context of a pipeline design, the metadata, key attributes, and advanced search capabilities must all work with each other to produce the desired results. When there’s no coherence, the results are like a book without the table of contents, indexes, chapter titles, and subtitles. A good LL system should make searching for an item of interest easy and efficient.

2. Avoid jargon and complexity. Jargon can make things difficult to understand. When writing lessons, mitigation actions, and recommendations, we need to write in the simplest form and language, avoiding any unnecessary jargon and complex words. In this context, Einstein’s famous quote about simplicity is relevant: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” If we can write it in such a way that even a fifth grader can understand (technicalities aside), then we are helping users of the LL program.

3. Information is a burden, not a benefit if it’s not organized, processed, and available to the right people in the right format for decision-making. If the information in the LL system is unorganized, users will resist using it. If the information is not processed in the way it should be, the information may lead to confusion and indecisiveness. If the information is not presented to users and decision makers in a manner that helps them make informed and data-based decisions, the purpose of having a LL system has failed, and the system (along with information in it) becomes a burden more than a benefit.

4. A thoughtful collection of lessons will save you a lot of LL database space and maintenance cost.  Recently, I watched an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix (on my daughter’s recommendation). It was revealing and relieving. While watching, I realized that most of the time, we are in collector mode—collecting stuff without really giving a thought as to why we needed it in the first place. The same is true about collecting lessons learned in business. Often the LL database contains necessary and unnecessary lessons. Therefore, when we are writing/collecting lessons, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:
• Are we writing this lesson for the sake of it, or is it really worthy of an entry in the database?
• Will this lesson bring efficiency to our processes?
• Will this lesson make the lives of our workers easier?

If we give a bit more thought before entering a lesson into the LL database, a lot of space as well as database maintenance costs can be saved. And yes, don’t forget to watch at least one episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo; you will learn so much that will help you personally and professionally.

5. Collection itself is not enough. Collection complemented with analysis and implementation will get lemonade from lemons. If lessons learned are only collected but not diligently analyzed and implemented, continuous improvement of business processes to increase profits will only be a dream (and a distant one at that). Therefore, a team of subject-matter experts, process owners, and quality professionals must analyze the collected lessons learned with due diligence and implement necessary corrective and preventive actions and recommendations.

While analyzing and implementing, ask yourself:
• Is it a one-time mistake, or is there a trend involved?
• Are the root causes identified?
• Do corrective and preventive actions and recommendations address the root causes?
• Are corrective and preventive actions and recommendations sustainable?

6. Many mistakes are going to hurt you, but you need to identify the ones worth focusing on. I am sure you have heard of the Pareto principle: 80 percent of consequences come from 20 percent of the causes. Put another way: 80 percent of the loss is due to 20 percent of the mistakes. Therefore, it’s important to identify those mistakes. That is where an organization must channel its efforts to prevent their recurrence and minimize most of the impact (i.e., 80% of the loss).

7. Corrective and preventive actions must be SMART. SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant/realistic, and time-bound. If the actions from lessons are not SMART, why even have them? One more key thing about actions is there can be multiple personnel or teams working on a SMART action; if and where possible (which is most of the time), make only one person responsible for ensuring the action is carried through to completion. In other words, one SMART action equals one action owner. By doing that you will see a significant increase in getting things done on time and within budget.

8. When you assign dollars to something, it suddenly becomes more important and gets more attention. If you don’t believe it, try this. First, go to your manager with an improvement initiative (e.g., an outcome of the LL program), but for its benefits only list intangible ones such as improved customer satisfaction or increased company goodwill. After a few weeks, go to your manager with the same improvement initiative. However, this time include two additional factors: 1) How much money can be lost due to mistakes; and 2) How much money can be saved by implementing the improvement initiative. You will soon realize that although the initiative is the same, the chances of it getting it approved are higher with the latter approach. Tangibles are more concrete, quantifiable, and visible in comparison to the intangibles. So, assign cost (both lost and future savings) to a lesson, and your chances of getting the initiative approved will be higher.

9. Sharing is caring. An important part of an LL program is sharing the relevant lessons with the appropriate stakeholders. Note these four key words: “appropriate stakeholders” and “relevant lessons.” Appropriate stakeholders can be internal—within the same function or across functions, within the same business unit or across business units, and within the same location or across locations. Or they can be external—clients, suppliers, and subcontractors. Relevant lessons mean only lessons applicable to the work scope of particular stakeholders. If done properly, sharing sends messages of transparency, honesty, and caring to all the stakeholders, which in turn will produce better outcomes from the LL program.

10. Measure and hit refresh. A famous quote from world-renown management thinker Peter Drucker is apt in the LL context: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” It leads to an important point: LL program metrics. The personnel designing the LL program must absolutely have metrics in place to measure the effectiveness and success of the LL program. A few examples of metrics include:
• Percentage of lessons learned converted into engineering controls and procedure changes
• Percentage of unrepeated lessons learned annually
• Annual incremental cost savings due to implemented lessons learned
• LL database query performance

Based on the results of the established LL program metrics, you must decide what necessary actions should be taken (e.g., hit refresh) and how to implement them to improve the LL program.


About The Author

Shobhendu Prabhakar’s picture

Shobhendu Prabhakar

Shobhendu Prabhakar is working with TechnipFMC in a project quality manager role. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, a master’s degree in mechanical design engineering, and a master’s degree in business administration. He is a Jones Scholar (Rice University in Houston) and a certified ISO 9001 lead auditor with 14+ years of professional experience in quality assurance in oil and gas industries. This article does not represent any TechnipFMC position, and it is in no way related to TechnipFMC.