vpresize VICTORY Principles: Leadership Lessons from D-Day by Colonel Leonard Kloeber, Jr.

LEARN FROM HISTORY

Maximize Performance Using After-Action-Reviews

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In these tough economic times, maximum performance is not only necessary for a company’s growth, but in many cases it is a critical component of a survival strategy. Optimum performance is required both at an individual and organizational level. If you can improve performance and efficiency in your operations, you will beat your competition and win over loyal customers for the future. Similar to the Japanese strategy for constant improvement, Kaizan, you can borrow a technique that is extensively used by the military to improve the performance of their units in training and combat. This simple, but effective technique is known as an After Action Review, or more simply, an AAR.

Over the years, military organizations have effectively used AAR’s as a team learning technique to improve their performance in both training and combat operations. This simple concept can be adapted easily to commercial or non-profit enterprises with similar positive impact. An AAR in its basic format is an organized review of an operation just completed. It is a “discovery learning” exercise that seeks to understand how similar operations can be improved for the future. In order to conduct an effective AAR, the stage should be set by the leader to establish a non-threatening environment where all participants are free to share their perspective without fear of reprisals. In the military, this means that rank takes a back seat to seeking the truth about what went right, what went wrong, and what can be improved. In this way, a robust and honest discussion will focus on what can be improved for the future. Here are some logical steps to conduct an AAR for your team:

1. Set the stage and ground rules: It is incumbent upon the leader of the organization to set the stage. This means that he or she should start by explaining the purpose and outcomes for the AAR session. The purpose of the AAR is to have an honest and robust discussion of a completed operation or project so that the team can discover “lessons learned” for the future. The primary outcomes are in the form of operational changes that lead to improved performance. At the session, everyone should feel free to speak their minds about what they observed or experienced during the operation. Additionally the leader should encourage participation by everyone on the team, even those who are normally reserved. Many times, these people will offer some of the best insights. The leader should also establish ground rules for respectful, but honest discussion. This will require courage on the part of the leader, especially when the leader’s own actions may be critiqued as part of the discussion. However, good leaders will welcome honest feedback on how they can personally improve their performance in support of the team, and if handled correctly, will enhance the leader’s trust with the rest of the team. Similarly, others should embrace feedback for their own actions as part of overall team improvement, and this will happen if the leaders set the right tone. The trick is to focus on effectiveness of behaviors and actions, but not on individual personalities.

2. Discuss the concept of the operation first: Begin the AAR by establishing the concept of the operation: What was the mission? What were the intended outcomes? What was the leader’s guidance to the team? What were the team members’ understanding of their roles? What were the standards if any for performance? What was the plan? How was it communicated? Note that the key to a successful AAR is to have a planned list of questions that will guide the conversation and enhance the group’s detailed understanding of the operation. The challenge for the discussion leader in this part of the discussion is to keep the focus on what was planned rather than jump into what actually happened which will come next.

3. Discuss what actually happened: Go through each step of the operation and focus on what actually happened. Typically this is done chronologically, starting with the first steps and progressively discussing each subsequent step until the operation was concluded; however, sometimes it may make sense to conduct a functional discussion of the operation meaning that things may be discussed by function rather than chronologically. This could mean that the actions of a support group or the leader’s actions are addressed as a separate discussion if this will help to focus on these specialty areas. However, in leading the discussion using this format, be sure to not loose perspective on how all the aspects of an operation fit together as a whole system.

4. Discuss what went well: This part of the discussion will focus on those things that went “right” and should be sustained in future operations. It is very important to focus on those actions that positively contributed to success, since you will want to deliberately make sure that these actions are continued in the future. This will include those things that were planned and executed well, and also those things that were unplanned, but nevertheless contributed to a positive result. Discussing the things that went right first will not only provide support for the team through positive recognition, but will offset the subsequent discussion of those things that didn’t work. This will result in a more balanced discussion overall.

5. Discuss those things that didn’t go well: This is where some of the best lessons are learned for the future, but it requires people to be bold enough to honestly report what did not go well. There may be things that were not planned for ahead of time, inadequate resources, poor instructions, lack of training, inappropriate leadership actions, or failure of individual team members to do their specific jobs. Sometimes these discussions will be difficult because people will tend to naturally defend their performance; however, if the discussion can be based on facts rather than opinions some of these personal challenges can be avoided. It will be up to the discussion leader to moderate the tone of the discussion and avoid any personal attacks which would be counterproductive to a learning environment.

6. Discover “lessons learned” for the future: Conclude the discussion with a discovery learning session about what was learned and how things can be improved for the future. Often this will be the most engaging part of the AAR. There may be a wide range of issues, but more often than not, there will be just a few critical issues that will have the most impact on the outcomes for the team. Try to avoid an extremely detailed discussion of those issues that will have a minimal impact, and focus instead on the most critical issues. Most teams will likely only be able to incorporate so much change at any one time so you will only want to address the most important issues first. The leader will want to make sure that the operational changes made in the future will be those which have the biggest pay-off for the team.

The format of your AAR can be adapted from these basic steps, but the general thrust of the AAR is to discover the “lessons learned.” Thus, if it makes sense for your team to capture these lessons as you go through the discussion, then the last step can simply be used to summarize the lessons that you have captured in the earlier steps. Regardless of your sequence, you should end the session with a commitment to make some common sense changes for improvement. Failure to make any changes will simply be frustrating for all participants and will make future AAR sessions more difficult. Your team will expect to see some positive results from the AAR, so this is your opportunity to drive positive change for your organization. If your team gets into the habit of regularly holding AAR sessions, they will become easier, quicker, and more effective. The best way to get started is to just hold an AAR at the conclusion of your next project or operation, even if the AAR isn’t done perfectly. The sooner your team has a chance to discover how they can improve, then the sooner you can actually see positive results. Use this article as your checklist for your AAR and get started now!

Note this post has been submitted for publication at ezinearticles.com

Written by editor

July 11th, 2009 at 12:03 pm

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