Why should you start a lesson learned log at the beginning of a project?

by Sylvie Edwards

Some call it a log, some call it a register but regardless of what name you give it, understanding how important it is to have a lesson learned tracking tool started as your project begins can make the whole exercise as easy as 1-2-3. You definitely should not have any reason for not having a strong pool of information from which to gather your final report from once the project is complete.

Very early on in my project management career, someone (wish I remembered who, because they deserve a hug or a medal) got me in the habit of having a lesson learned log created as part of planning activities with the rest of the working documents that are associated with and most of the time end up being updated consistently as the project unfolds. Think of other logs such as your decision, action or issue log and add a lesson learned log to the mix. Each will play a key role in keeping track of and following our progression while assisting in our ability to have better-defined documentation. Mapping out progress and the hurdles we encounter along the way is easy when you have the tools in place to support the process.

I had never created a lesson learned log before this early in the project life cycle and like most people believed that the lesson learned process was a late phase, near completion of the project exercise that was initiated most often by a survey or interviews with the stakeholders ending in a review meeting and documented via a closure report.

It did not take long once I had started this practice to notice a real improvement in the quality and level of detail that I was gathering to produce the closure report. It also often meant that I simply needed to follow up with the stakeholders for additional information rather than asking them to recount what might have happened weeks or months back in the project. It made sense; we were capturing in the moment information that would have otherwise been forgotten or not detailed enough to act upon when using the previous method of capture.

Going back a month or more, sometimes back up to a year, to have anyone remember what could have been done better or what idea would have made more sense in a specific situation, was a lot to ask of anyone. Another thing that comes to change the information’s perspective too, above time, is the fact that most people tend to remember past events, either way, more positively or negatively than the reality that was encountered when the events happened. Capturing the event as it is occurring takes away that bias altogether. No rose-colored glasses used.

Gone are the days when a project manager, the team, and the major stakeholders only have to deal with the one project a year. Some people can tackle up to a dozen projects now within the same period of time. That does not leave a lot of time to keep some information top of mind. It definitely can create issues with the recollection of what happened in what project versus another. Each log is linked to a specific project alleviates the confusion and keeps the information contained.

Needless to say, that the practice of learning as we go and documenting those lessons as they are faced has also contributed in sometimes generating solutions that might have been pushed aside and only documented for use in future projects. It makes us more proactive to change. Putting it down on paper makes it more permanent and less easy to set aside or disregard as well.

I have written a previous article that discusses the changes to the PMBOK® Guide with the recent 6th edition in regards to knowledge management. One of the main changes supports this practice that I have used for more than 20 years in projects. If you look closely, the lesson learned log is often found as an input to several processes and more specifically in the execution and control processes.

It makes sense to capture as we go, to use if it fits now, and to keep for future use that invaluable set of information that we have gathered. Be more proactive with your lessons learned data gathering process and it will pay you forward.


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