Storm Post-Mortems and Lessons Learned

Lessons learnedDo you know anybody who wakes up in the morning saying, “I really hope I make a mistake today so I can learn something”?  Well, me neither, but perhaps more people should adopt this mindset.  One of the more interesting aspects of the human brain is that it tends to learn more from the mistakes we make than from the successes we achieve.  Sure, it’s a tough pill to swallow because our ego often gets in the way, but many – and I mean many – successful people throughout history experienced multiple failures before finally making it big time:

  • R.H. Macy had several retail failures before creating Macy & Co. at the age of 36.
  • Henry Ford had multiple failed automotive businesses prior to forming the Ford Motor Company in 1903.
  • Sir James Dyson developed over 5,000 failed prototypes before finally getting it right and launching the Dyson brand of vacuum cleaners in the 1980s.

And the list goes on and on.  The point is that it’s absolutely critical to learn from the past, especially past mistakes, in order to make improvements in the future.  And when it comes to emergency restoration efforts, perfection is impossible – there will always be successes and failures. The only way to build on the successes and improve upon the failures is to adopt a formal post mortem evaluation process that is performed after each and every major restoration effort.

Of course, this begs the question of how exactly to structure and formalize a post-mortem or lessons learned process.  First, let’s start out with a definition: A lessons learned session focuses on identifying restoration successes and failures, and includes recommendations to improve future performance.  It’s certainly not a “blame-game.”  It involves asking what went right, what went wrong, and what could be improved in the future.

Making any lessons learned session productive requires preparing in advance, analyzing the restoration process systematically, producing actionable findings, and actively sharing the results.  Specifically, there are nine steps to maximizing the value of a lessons learned process.

Steps for Maximizing the Lessons Learned Process

  1. Prepare for it: Formalize the session as part of the restoration plan; each session should be a scheduled activity at a predetermined venue.
  2. Do it quickly: Conduct the session as soon as possible after the restoration effort while the details are fresh in everyone’s minds.
  3. Start with a summary: Send out a brief summary of the pertinent issues in advance, and ask for feedback on additional issues worthy of discussion. Then begin the actual session by reviewing the major details of what happened to stimulate the participants’ thought processes and gain agreement on all the facts.
  4. Involve everyone: Don’t let any participant get away with perpetual silence. Find a way to get everyone involved.
  5. Get it in writing: The output of the session should be documented and put into a written report.
  6. Record successes as well as failures: This will help the session avoid degenerating into a blame game.
  7. Eliminate fear of punishment: Make it clear from the top-down that these sessions are designed for open and honest feedback, not for punishing those who have erred, and always focus on processes instead of people’s actions.
  8. Create an action plan: Include in the written report recommendations for fixing things that didn’t work and continuing things that did work.
  9. Share it: The post-mortem written reports and recommendations should be communicated and shared with everyone in the organization who would benefit from the learning.

In the final analysis, storm restoration post-mortems are invaluable in terms of process improvement.  Like the 8-month old who tries to walk 100 times before taking that first crucial step, learning from the past is the best way to ensure success in the future.  Just make sure this post-mortem process is embedded into the organization’s overall emergency preparedness plan, and that the issues and recommendations identified during each session are clearly documented and shared with all the stakeholders.

And above all, make it clear that these sessions are not designed to point fingers or assign blame; they are merely designed for evaluating the organization’s storm restoration processes and procedures to identify lessons learned so processes can be improved.

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  • Bluwasp

    Good info here. I have found that one of the key elements of a successful debrief is to have a facilitator who is trained in carrying out debriefs, especially when dealing with multi-agency/multi-actor individuals.

    • eileen

      Great point, I totally agree!

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