Organizational learning requires a continuous assessment of performance and an examination of successes and failures. With consistent process improvement — a component of modern quality management — an organization can assess, tailor, and implement its processes to achieve business goals and ensure long-term growth.
Jumpstarting a continuous quality improvement process starts by conducting after action reviews (AAR). The process has become a standard operating procedure for facilities to improve their work process. The U.S. Army developed the AAR as a way to review and enhance combat operations and related military training.
Since then, AARs have benefitted various sectors, such as the construction, mechanics, and fire and safety industries. Together with hand protection and hand safety solutions, the review system can help team members respond better to workplace injuries and reduce exposure to hazards.
Organizations execute AARs following project completion, allowing leadership members and personnel to decide what processes to keep and what to do differently next time. With this system, businesses can learn critical lessons and improve overall performance.
A Leadership and Knowledge Sharing Tool
An AAR is a professional discussion of an event between the development professionals and colleagues. The review focuses on improvement standards and gives participants the opportunity to gain insights into what happened and why, and how to sustain strengths and build on weaknesses.
The AAR is a crucial leadership and knowledge sharing tool that affords leaders, partners, and employees to gain maximum benefit from their next activity, program, or task. The review is an essential basis for learning from successes and failures because it provides:
- Details often missing in evaluation reports alone;
- Feedback from fellow team members critical to improved productivity, and
- Candid and relevant insights on specific strengths and weaknesses from different points of view.
Administering an AAR in an environment of openness, clarity, and honest discussion can yield valuable information. The participants in the review, as well as others planning similar events, can get a clearer idea of what went well and what they can do moving forward.
After the session, participants can compile recommendations for changes and improvement in an AAR report. The document can, in turn, encourage greater success when performing similar tasks or activities.
Logistical Arrangements: Preparing for an AAR
Leaders will typically plan the review at the end of a critical phase or major training event. Ideally, it should take place as soon after the job or event as possible so participants can receive better, timely feedback on performance and retain the lessons longer. For maximum benefit, participants should make the following preparations:
Determine the Activity for Review
Before conducting an AAR, leadership members decide on the activity and the topic for review, typically an entire job or process recently carried out. The substance and scope of the discussion can either be broad or relatively specific. The analysis can tackle issues such as problem-solving, opportunities and challenges, or a concrete product, or an event or activity.
With a lean process of After Action Reviews, the best time to perform an AAR is immediately after the work is completed so information about the work can be captured reducing the amount of information lost to fading memories of the activities performed.
Choose an AAR Facilitator
The person conducting the session may be an external facilitator or a member of the team. An in-house facilitator must participate as a facilitator and team member. In-house facilitators can be any individual from the quality management department. Representatives from the training department are also qualified to fill the role.
For most After Action Reviews, the facilitator will likely be the on-site manager who was in charge of the job during the actual work, but it is also effective to have junior personnel lead the AAR as it provides a different perspective than that of the person who was in charge of the actual work.
Enlist Key Leader Support
Principal leader support is essential to the AAR planning process; management buy-in keeps participants interested and motivated to engage in the discussion. An organizational champion participating in the AAR process contributes to greater knowledge-sharing and process improvement.
Confirm the Venue and Agenda
The AAR location must be accessible to all participants, with a venue supplied with supporting documents and materials. For the vast majority of After Action Reviews this will be at the job site. If held at time much later than the end of work, the facilitator should also finalize the agenda and distribute it to the rest of the participants. Preparing flip charts are also a must to keep the discussion efficient.
Keep in mind that some of the most effective After Action Reviews take place immediately after the work, so information is fresh in everyone's mind and the process doesn't become more work than it needs to be.
Driving Organizational Change: Conducting an AAR
Attendees at the AAR contribute their insights, observations, and questions to identify deficiencies and maintain strengths. Participants must keep in mind that AARs are not full-scale evaluation reports; they do not grade success or failure. Instead, they seek to answer four major questions:
What Was Planned?
The session begins by determining goals and objectives. These include action plans, individual and team goals, and expected challenges.
What Really Happened?
Uncover the events that took place and how well the intended plan was executed. Participants can share and rebuild what happened — the deeper contexts and various perspectives can make the situation clearer.
It helps to examine team performance and compare it with standards of team effectiveness. This involves using critical components of rational decision-making.
- Recognition: Were there any problems; if so, when? Where there indicators of a problem?
- Situation Awareness: Was the entire team aware of the situation? Was control maintained the entire time?
- Risk Assessment and Analysis: Were team members able to successfully identify critical risks?
- Action: Was the action plan described in a clear and timely manner? Did it achieve the desired result?
If Anything Went Wrong, Why?
Answering this question will help identify the root causes of successes and failures. During the AAR, it is crucial to keep both sides balanced and in perspective.
While it is often easier to concentrate on what went wrong, determining causes of success are equally important. This is because they are an excellent opportunity to reinforce behavior, experiences, and guidelines that promote safety and efficiency.
Asking questions about and analyzing failures should focus on what is right instead of who is right. On a similar vein, facilitators need to keep individual reprimands out of the session. Instead, after identifying failures, attendees should discuss what should have happened and what didn’t.
Is There a Way to Improve the Process Next Time?
After singling out the root causes of the problem, participants can more accurately develop solutions that concentrate on improvement. This step can help crew members establish goals and perform the activity better the next time around.
Paving the Road to Long-term Success
The true measure of an AAR is what happens after the discussion. It offers a dynamic link to completing a task and striving for excellent performance. By applying the results of an AAR to future situations, organizations can lessen shortfalls and continue what they were doing well.
Learn more about how to improve operations and reduce risks at your facility, and take a look at the guide we’ve prepared for job risk assessments.