Though engineers and managers routinely express the desire to learn from
previous project experience, we typically do not learn effectively from our
projects. The failure to learn valid and valuable lessons from project
experiences can be attributed to a number of cognitive and social factors.
Fortunately, a great deal of literature in the fields of decision theory and
cognitive science is relevant to the subject. Unfortunately, much of this
literature is unknown to most practicing engineers. This paper presents a
structured method for identifying learning limits, an introduction to current
thinking in areas of knowledge required to implement the method, a summary of
the results of applying of the method, and suggestions for improving our
ability to learn from project experiences.
In the 1950s, France fought a war in Vietnam. After a protracted struggle,
France gave up and withdrew. A decade later, the US repeated the French
experiment in the same country, producing the same results. Many parallels can
be drawn between the French and American experiences in Vietnam.
- In each case, an apparently vastly superior force (France, US) waged war on
an apparently hopelessly inferior opponent.
- Both the French and the Americans vastly underestimated the determination
of the enemy. In both conflicts, the North Vietnamese proved to be much more
motivated to succeed than the outsiders.
- Success for the North Vietnamese required simply that they survive until
the enemy gave up. Given the situation, the North Vietnamese had a much more
effective strategy than the foreign armies.
- Both the French and American public became increasingly hostile to the war
effort as time progressed.
Similar assessments can be made with regard to the Soviet engagement in
Afghanistan, the current war in Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, the
Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta 2,400 years ago. Though each of
these wars is different in significant ways, it is also clear that some lessons
could have been learned from each but were not.
The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) by the
Project Management Institute (PMI) (PMI 2004), now in its third edition, has
been adopted as an American National Standard (ANSI/PMI 99-001-2004). PMBOK
suggests that organizations should capture lessons learned as a discrete step
at each stage of project execution. The phrase "lessons learned"
appears 34 times in the book. Clearly, the authors recognize that effective
learning is an important part of project management. However, it is interesting
to note that the phrase "lessons learned" is not discussed anywhere in
the book beyond a short description in the glossary. The other 33 entries are
simple admonishments to do it. Compare this to "cost estimating," a
conceptually simple subject to which an entire chapter is devoted. Since PMBOK
clearly identifies learning lessons as an important task, but spends no effort
describing how to do it, we must assume that the authors believe that learning
in a project setting is obvious and easy.
We do not believe that learning is easy. It is our premise that learning
valid lessons from projects is in fact quite difficult because of a number of
social and cognitive factors. This paper attempts to comprehensively identify
the most important limiting factors. It is only by addressing these root causes
of our learning disability that we can expect to identify solutions.
© 2008. Society of Petroleum Engineers
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- Original manuscript received:
31 July 2007
- Meeting paper published:
11 November 2007
- Revised manuscript received:
12 February 2008
- Manuscript approved:
23 January 2008
- Version of record:
15 September 2008