Making the Same Mistake Over and Over? How to Absorb Outsourcing Lessons into Process

George Santayana once wrote: “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” I also like what Albert Einstein wrote, “Insanity is doing the same …

George Santayana once wrote: “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” I also like what Albert Einstein wrote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So it is for many providers who do not have a structured process for learning from their past performance. Customers expect their providers to continuously improve their performance. In a competitive world of outsourcing, providers benefit by reducing service defects, thereby improving customer satisfaction and their bottom line. After all, failure to meet performance levels ends up costing them in their margin – directly or indirectly.

Working with providers, I have encouraged them to use a formal “lessons learned” process. I advocate that this be an ongoing, established program rather than a periodic event.

Lessons Learned Process

It is a formal process and a foundation for quality review. It provides a method for clinically dissecting performance, documents factors impacting the outcome and creates a framework for learning. It is not a “witch hunt” or “who shot John” game. The intent of a successful lessons learned process is to identify factors influencing results and delve deeper into the root cause for each of them. Therefore, the process is designed to evaluate both failure – missed performance –and success– expectations met. In quality process, this is often associated with creating a “fishbone” (or Ishikawa) diagram. Let’s look at how to design and successfully conduct a lessons learned process.

Creating Lessons Learned Framework

A structured framework for the lessons learned helps not only in identifying factors but also as a learning tool for future performance. A typical “fishbone” diagram describes the outcome and then creates a set of categories for factors that affected the outcome. In a structured lessons learned framework, it is important to have these categories standardized, so that over a period of time, we can establish patterns and trends. The following diagram shows one of these standards that I have recommended to providers with whom I work.



Conducting Lessons Learned Exercise

It is essential that a lessons learned exercise is formal, consistent and involves all people that are directly, and at times, indirectly, engaged in the activity. As mentioned earlier, these exercises should be for both successful and unsuccessful outcomes, so that learning can be analyzed from both perspectives. I recommend the following seven step process:

1. Assemble the team that will conduct the exercise. A discussion leader and a scribe need to be appointed so that the meeting rules and etiquettes are followed. Ideally, the conference room is organized so that there are seven category flip chart pages and a separate flip chart for documenting brainstorming items. I have found that a conference room without chairs (where everyone is standing) is more conducive to brainstorming than people sitting around a large table.

2. Agree on the “head” of the fishbone, describing the outcome as specifically as possible. For example: “project metrics were not met” or “project completed ahead of schedule and under budget.” Clarify categories for everyone involved, so that they do not become a matter of interpretation later during the exercise.

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3. Conduct brainstorming session. Typical brainstorming process is:

a. Each person (on a round robin basis) lists the contributing factor. These factors should be as factual as possible and not just “here-says” or opinions regarding the cause. Causes will be determined later.

b. As each person contributes a factor, no discussion takes place (except for clarification purposes only).

c. Round robin process continues everyone has exhausted factors to contribute (people can “pass” during the round robin if they have no new factors to contribute).

d. Document all of the factors on a flip chart (as they were stated).

4. Once brainstorming is complete, each of the factors are discussed, categorized and placed on the appropriate flip chart. Discussion can lead to adding more factors or eliminating ones discussed.

5. Once all factors are categorized, each category is studied to see common causes and a more thorough “root” cause analysis done. Root cause analysis is conducted by asking the question “why” until there can be no further drilled down. Typically it will take at least five “whys” to get to the root cause. These root causes, by each category are documented separately and if necessary, prioritized by their perceived influence on the outcome.

6. Final steps in the lessons learned exercise is to document these root causes, and projects created, to either reinforce their impact (if they resulted in a positive result) or come up with a solution to avoid/mitigate them on future projects.

7. Final outcome, lessons learned categories and root causes are then stored in a single document so that others can study them later and learn from past mistakes or accomplishments. When I worked at Xerox, we called this our “book of knowledge” and each project manager was required to study the book prior to launching a new project. This is a process that allows one to learn from history.

Honest, open lessons learned exercises and in depth assessment of root causes, helps create an environment where past performance becomes a guide for future improvements. As George Washington wrote in a letter to Fielding Lewis (July 6, 1780): “To rectify past blunders is impossible, but we might profit by the experience of them.”

Jagdish(Jag) Dalal is Founder and President of JDalal Associates LLC (JDA) and Managing Director, Thought Leadership for IAOP and a world-renowned consultant in the field of outsourcing. Dalal is a Certified Outsourcing Professional (COP®). He can be reached at