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After Action Reviews

I’ve become a big fan of harvesting lessons from both successes and failures.  One of my favorite tools for doing so is the formal or informal After Action Review. (This is also sometimes called a ‘hotwash’ or ‘hot wash’.)


Keys to a good After Action Review meeting:

  1. Only include the people who took part in the action (including planning it)
  2. No names, no ranks – everybody speaks their mind, and past performance is referred to by title or position, never by name. No ego, no fear, just truth and openness. Everybody is subordinate to the mission.
  3. Focus is on fixing the future (not assigning blame for the past)
  4. Put the needs of the firm above your need to be right, to be perfect, to be safe – approach the task of improving our process with humility and candor.
  5. I use a six-stage debrief with the steps identified by the acronym HEALTH:

[H] Heart-felt Tone is prepared, loving, nameless, rankless

  • (If formal) Assign roles: timekeeper, scribe, discussion leader (same as mission planner)
  • Inform everyone what they need to bring
  • Prepare the room with flip charts, clean table tops
  • Start on time / keep on schedule / end on time
  • Open your heart and lead by example; be open to what is; let go of looking good or proving a point
  • Talk in the third person – never “I” or “you” but “the lead carpenter,” “the estimator,” or “the MC”
  • Don’t care about WHO is right – care about WHAT is right

[E] Execution vs. Objectives –

  • Were objectives clear? Wise? Shared?
  • Reconstruct the sequence of events – planned vs actual
  • Did we accomplish the mission?

[A] Analyze execution

  • List errors and successes
  • For each error/success, list cause(s)
  • Identify underlying root cause(s) of each

[L] Lessons Learned

  • Look for prominent or recurring root causes
  • Next time we do this, what will we want to do the same? Do differently?

[T] Transfer Lessons Learned – make part of future process

  • Use the lessons to update checklists, processes, or trainings

[H] High Note

  • End the meeting with an emotionally upbeat summary of what just took place

Congratulations! That’s a great After Action Review. Write it up and share it appropriately.

Adapted from: “Flawless Execution” by James D. Murphy, ISBN 0-06-083416-1
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