Lessons Learned

by Russ Westcott

"Lessons learned” is just one name for the penultimate step that takes place before closing a process improvement or new development project. Other names include:

  • • Autopsy.
  • • Reverse engineering the project activities.
  • • Santayana review.1,2
  • • Postproject appraisal.3

The purpose of this step is to ferret out what went wrong, what went right and why, before the team disbands and the project becomes history. Its goal is to help an organization:

  • Learn from any poor decisions, inadequate actions or mistakes made and also from the good decisions made and effective actions taken.
  • Learn from the appropriate and efficient use of techniques and tools.
  • Focus on work done well to provide appropriate recognition.
  • Document the findings for the organization’s knowledge base.

The term “lessons learned” appears frequently in the quality improvement and project management literature—almost as if it were a common tool for every organization. But,
do all organizations have an actual process, and do they use it?

There is a suggested format for capturing points to discuss at a lessons learned debriefing.4 Table 1 lists a number of thought starters to trigger discussion. One project team learned:

  • It had relied on the advice of a respected and experienced member.
  • Many decisions were made without thoroughly discussing pros and cons.
  • Members often disagreed with decisions but kept their reasons to themselves.
  • Members noted failing to identify root causes and potential risks.

As the frequency of lessons learned debriefings increases over time, project teams will learn to keep notes during the project that will be helpful in the debriefing. Of course, holding a debriefing at the end of a project doesn’t mean corrective actions needed during the project should be postponed until then.


  1. J.M. Juran and A. Blanton Godfrey, eds., Juran’s Quality Handbook, fifth edition, McGraw-Hill, 1999, pp. 5.51-5.55.
  2. A. Blanton Godfrey, The Santayana Review, Juran Institute, 1999.
  3. Frank R. Gulliver, “Post-Project Appraisals Pay,” Harvard Business Review, March/April, 1987.
  4. Russell Westcott, Simplified Project Management for the Quality Professional, ASQ Quality Press, 2005, p. 141.

RUSS WESTCOTT is president of R.T. Westcott & Associates in Old Saybrook, CT. He is a Fellow of ASQ and a certified quality auditor and quality manager.

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