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The Value of ‘Lessons Learned’ in the Lab

Lessons learned conversations create a safe space for everyone to be heard and help identify successes and areas for improvement

by
Todd McEvoy, PhD

Todd McEvoy, PhD, is the senior director of laboratory services for Azzur Labs at their Schnecksville, PA location. In this role he is accountable for all aspects of the business...

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High-performing laboratory organizations continuously challenge themselves to become better at what they do. But this “drive for better” may plow forward at an untenable pace, creating processes that aren’t feasible to maintain. This way of working can lead to failed projects or missed goals. It’s the lab manager’s responsibility to pause the pace to ensure there’s a better understanding of where improvements can be made to enable long-term growth. 

One tool lab managers can use is “lessons learned”, which is a structured conversation meant to evaluate what is working well and should remain the same versus what changes need to be implemented for future success. It’s not always easy to do, especially for projects that didn’t proceed as planned. This article will review some key concepts that can be used to successfully gain the most value from a lessons learned approach. 

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A template for lessons learned

The concept of lessons learned is rather straightforward. It is a time to reflect on a project's successes and breakdowns with an opportunity to identify what the team should continue doing and where changes could be made. The basis for lessons learned is founded on answering five questions: 

  1. What did we expect to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What worked well?
  4. What was unexpected?
  5. How could we do things differently?

While these questions appear rather simple, the answers can be complex and even controversial, especially when a lessons learned is being performed for a project that didn’t perform well or that didn’t meet its intended goals. These discussions often require special attention and care so that the meeting is beneficial and doesn’t go off the rails. Before starting the discussion, there are a few key things to do when leading lessons learned. 

  1. Ensure everyone understands why the lessons learned is being conducted. The primary focus should be to continuously improve processes so that future projects are easier to conduct and more likely to succeed.
  2. Reinforce to the attendees that the meeting is not a witch hunt. No one wants to join a meeting that they feel its purpose is to find where to place blame.
  3. Be aware of past experiences for a participant that may immediately put them on the defensive. If they considered themselves mistreated on the project or on previous similar projects, special attention is needed to keep the individual engaged. 
  4. Clearly articulate what’s in it for them. Is it to make their jobs easier, to reduce stress, or to develop processes that improve communication between teams? A clear value statement must be established and delivered to the team.

Misalignment of project strategy, real or perceived lack of resources, and poor goal definition can result in team members not recognizing the responsibilities for everyone involved in the project. Therefore, even when the leader goes to great lengths to prepare for the lessons learned, not all participants will be accepting of the conversation. Participants might find it easier to simply place blame than accept responsibility and work toward a root cause. Placing blame, however, tends to raise the tension in the room and derail the process. It is the leader’s responsibility to recognize when the conversation has taken a wrong turn, becoming negative or even confrontational. Here are ways that a leader can control the tenor of the conversation.

  • Reiterate the desired outcome for the meeting.
  • Be observant. Read the room and observe body language from the attendees. Body language can speak greater volumes than words.
  • Ask open-ended questions where everyone can contribute, ensuring that the feedback is inclusive of the entire team.
  • Be careful using the word YOU. By saying “you”, it often can put the other person on the defensive.
  • Clarify comments if you feel others may be interpreting them incorrectly.
  • Lead with observations, questions, and facts; not conclusions and opinions.
  • Be careful not to inadvertently lead the witness. Don’t assume you know the answers. You want others to openly provide their view so that facts can be established, and accurate conclusions drawn.
  • If the conversation gets heated, call a timeout and re-engage with an agreement from everyone before moving forward.

Developing trust

A cornerstone for holding candid but respectful conversations with any team is previously established trust. The earlier a leader focuses on establishing trust within their organization, the easier it is to obtain real, valuable feedback. Creating environments of trust is so important to employers that they sometimes weave these actions into their company values or goals. Here are five ways that lab manager’s can gain trust among their staff:

  1. Put others first – find ways to help those around you succeed.
  2. Each team member should take personal responsibility for the pieces of the business that they impact and take a proactive approach to their work.
  3. Listen with a purpose of learning – refrain from simply listening for the answer you expect, but instead listen to understand the full scope of what you are hearing. 
  4. Lead by example – do what is right and do it with integrity.
  5. Follow through on your promises – listening is not enough. Action is expected by your team.

Follow-up

Now that a lessons learned discussion was held, what’s next? Don’t just file the notes from the meeting. You must take action to make the learnings stick. An article from Fast Company has suggestions for making corporate training stick. The same concepts can be applied to ensure that outcomes or changes derived from a lessons learned are implemented in future projects: 

  • Post-training action plan – track progress either informally or formally. In some cases, your lab’s CAPA process might be the best mechanism to ensure completion and continued adherence.
  • Follow-up sessions – schedule meetings to review and track progress of action items.
  • Collaborative online workspaces – create shared workspaces in platforms like Asana, Basecamp, or Smartsheet to continue collaboration. This works well for distributed organization with multiple lab locations, or people working remotely.
  • Peer learning – let those who have the knowledge get the opportunity to teach others. Open discussions during the lessons learned may help to identify knowledge gaps among the team and create opportunities for peers to learn from one another.
  • New training content – create and share the content across the broader organization. Content in the form of internal application notes, training videos, or lunch-and-learns are great ways to educate and inform colleagues. .

Lessons learned can be an important piece of a leader’s toolkit. However, it is not always easy to get buy-in from the participants, and the discussion may become confrontational. By employing some of the strategies outlined above, leaders can create a safe, controlled environment where participants can provide valuable information to help organizations develop alternative processes and reinforce winning strategies that result in higher performing teams and organizations.


Todd McEvoy, PhD, is the senior director of laboratory services at Azzur Group. Todd presented on the topic of lessons learned at the 2023 Lab Manager Leadership Summit. See the full event agenda for the 2024 Leadership Summit here: https://summit.labmanager.com/leadership