After-Action Reviews for Innovation & Continuous Process Improvement

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Any business project or event can generate important lessons that lead to new knowledge. This lesson outlines how after-action reviews can be used in future operations so that quality is constantly improving.

Learn From Situations

In early 2018, the treatment of two African-American individuals at a Starbucks coffee shop sparked a firestorm of controversy. One of the two men asked to use the restroom but was denied on the grounds that he was not yet a paying customer. When the men declined to leave, as they were waiting for a friend, the manager called police and the men were arrested, and the event soon went viral.

Starbucks quickly conducted an after-action review, a retrospective reflection in which reviewers seek to gain insight from an event under review. The lessons learned from this incident resulted in an apology to the men, but the findings of the after-action review resulted in something else that was remarkable. Because of lessons learned in review, on May 29th of 2018, all Starbucks stores in the US market were closed so that the chain's 175,000 employees could receive additional training on situations like this.

Following an unfortunate event, Starbucks used the after-action review to identify process problems and remedy them.

The after-action review is a mainstay of business improvement. Projects large and small, implementations, and contract negotiations are all important events that contain a treasure trove of information that can be harvested for use the next time around. These reviews are often associated with failures, but can certainly be used for successes as well.

Structure of an After-Action Review

An after-action review needs to follow a structured pattern to avoid becoming free-for-all finger-pointings or back-slapping events. After-action reviews are about processes and outcomes, not people.

1. Prerequisites

The benefits of an after-action review are directly tied to the quality of the documentation during the event that is being reviewed. Unfortunately, a lack of documentation during a major project or event is common. After-action reviews lose a great deal of value when the reviewers do not have the information necessary to make an informed analysis.

For this reason, a prerequisite to actually conducting the review is gathering and vetting documentation created during the event. If no documentation exists, it may be beneficial to take the time to create some before the review.

2. Facilitation

At the beginning of an after-action review, the objectives should be laid out at the onset. To keep the focus squarely on these goals, use an agenda or other tool created thoughtfully in advance of the review.

During the review, if the discussion starts to wander, it is the responsibility of the leader/facilitator to redirect the conversation, as many times as is necessary, to ensure the goals of the review are met.

3. Ground rules

Once the objectives have been determined, it's time to build the ground rules for the review itself. Ground rules are the standards that establish how the session will be moderated - minute-by-minute. All review sessions should have ground rules that:

  • Establish that the moderator will open, conduct, and close the meeting in a manner consistent with the objectives.
  • Create a time management plan that allows for the enforcement of a respectful but firm time table for speaking.
  • Prohibit interrupting a presently recognized speaker.
  • Require that remarks are relevant to the event being reviewed.
  • Provide for proper documentation of the review (written notes, audio or video recording, etc).

4. Review the lessons learned

When the moderator opens the review session, they should explain that the meeting is for the purpose of sharing lessons learned. Those lessons that make someone on the team say, ''Well, now I know what I won't (or will) do next time.'' If previously unknown lessons learned appear in the review, document them at this time.

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