How to Develop a Practical, Lessons-Learned Library
Create a system to avoid losing company knowledge

Perhaps history doesn’t have to have such a melancholy twist. What if a firm repeated a behavior over and over, and made its replication a best practice? More often than not, firms complete a project, collect the final payment and archive the results for the obligatory 7 years in some musty banker’s box, never to be opened again. Memories of that project become local lore, and are usually only shared at happy hours.

Today, some firms are finally beginning to recognize the importance of the data gathered from these projects in support of their strategic plans. Productivity rates, historical unit costs and customer feedback have become mission critical data points for the best-in-class organizations. However, this quantifiable data is only one piece of the puzzle. Firms must capture the techniques, concepts and examples of “building genius.” The military calls this process an after action review (AAR), and uses these lessons to develop tactics and strategies. How often do firms attempt to bury and forget past projects, as if they are simply turning over the hourglass?

The construction industry is built on the ingenuity of great minds in the field. The problem is capturing this information in a manner that distills normal operating procedures from truly innovative concepts. The first vehicle to consider is the post-job review. Normally relegated to conducting the autopsies of “disaster projects,” best-in-class firms use this exercise to stimulate discussion around both challenging aspects of a project and techniques that should be replicated. As a starting point, post-job reviews should avoid the blame game and focus on introspective components of each player’s performance.

For instance, consider the following technique. Your project manager says, “Here are three things I would repeat in future projects:

  1. The site lent itself to a balanced cut and fill. Originally, the firm was going to import 20,000 cubic yards of a material from a site 4 miles away. Through the preconstruction process, it re-engineered the site to allow for no import, saving the firm money.
  2. The concrete tilt panels were exceptionally tall. The firm used a specific technique to bring the natural camber of the panels to the inside of the wall, eliminating exterior bows.
  3. The firm used a new roofing membrane that was previously untested. While the jury is still out, the firm feels the installation was smooth and saved 2 weeks on the schedule.”

Your project manager says, “Here are three things I would do differently in future projects:

  1. Safety was a huge concern and the team should have been more diligent in the inspection, particularly during the water line tie-in phase.
  2. The punch list was not smooth. The team should have conducted a close-out meeting with at least the painter and drywall contractor present during the final 4 weeks.
  3. The schedule should have been updated more frequently. The superintendent and the project manager let it slip at about 60 percent of the project’s completion.”

Similarly, the other key players—estimators, superintendents, key foremen—should chime in with their feedback. Ultimately, this data is then summarized in one document. One thought is to develop a list of the top 10 takeaways, which should be good and bad news. The list eliminates redundancy. Some important considerations that should also be considered in a post-job review:

  • Customer-isms—For companies that work with repeat clients, it would be prudent to capture their takeaways. For instance, the following would be important considerations:
    • Design preferences (not listed on plans or specifications)
    • Communication preferences (email, phone calls, in-person meetings)
    • Logistical concerns (work schedules, deliveries concerns, site utilizations)
  • Trade contractor performance—Rather than lament about subpar performance, measure each partner on objective criteria, such as workmanship, their ability to meet deadlines, paperwork and safety.
  • Format—No one likes long narratives. Leverage technology. Digital photography and video is now ubiquitous. Make it mandatory to supplement each list item with at least one picture or video.

Standardizing the format and rules is essential. Without a standard, the lessons learned is a cacophony of noise and jumbled thoughts.

The lessons-learned library is essentially the repository in which these ideas are stored. The problem that firms must overcome is encouraging everyone to use it regularly. The first consideration that firms must consider is the filing structure. Do not store by job number.

While this seems like normal behavior, no one remembers job numbers. Rather, consider organizing jobs by mechanical contractor, typical customer base or geography. The following is an example of file storage nomenclature for a library.

  • Tampa
    • Healthcare
      • HVAC Lessons
        • JOB 123 – Tampa General Hospital (Top 10 List)
      • Piping Lessons
      • Plumbing Lessons
    • Commercial

While this sounds simplistic, the system needs to be inviting. The second consideration is the lynchpin: what will drive traffic to the library? There is no shortage of considerations for encouraging use of this incredible resource. Training and developing in-house experts is an outstanding way to drive accountability and help spread the load. No library was written by one author. Ask key players within the firm to accept ownership of this task.

Firms continue to wrestle with talent gaps within their organizational ranks. Additionally, these same firms see some of their most seasoned practitioners exit the business. Is the collective knowledge that resides in those brains going to simply wither away in retirement, or is this one opportunity to extract years of history lessons? Superior firms not only have a library, but they also now have a robust media center to make themselves smarter.