Lessons Learned, the Lifeblood of the Learning Organization

By Rick Edwards and Shawn P. Quigley

How Lessons-Learned apply to the Learning Organization

In our previous post, we defined Lessons Learned (LL), and discussed why the practice is so vital to the long-term viability of an organization. Now we will discuss how the disciplines practiced by Learning Organizations can unlock the full potential of an organization when applied to the Lessons Learned process.

At first glance it is obvious how Learning Organizations use Lessons Learned in creating value through, well, learning.  However, in order to really understand how to maximize the impact projects have on the future performance of an organization, we need to dig deeper. According to Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (Fieldbook) there are five disciplines practiced by the Learning Organization: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Team Learning, Systems Thinking, and Shared Vision. (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, & Smith, 1994) In a previous post we defined each of these five disciplines; therefore we will not be redefining them here.

Continuous Learning

The first two disciplines, Personal Mastery and Mental Models, both pertain to the individual team members within the project. Team members who practice these disciplines understand not only themselves, but how they view the world. They understand their biases and strengths. They understand their weaknesses and their experiences. These two disciplines create the foundation of lessons learned since the lessons are derived from the team members’ experiences and therefore described in the context of the extent to which these two disciplines are practiced. As we discussed in the posts on the leadership equation, experiences are a major driver in behavior both good and bad. If the team members don’t understand or are not honest about what has happened, then the context of the lesson may be compromised. As they say, “Garbage In – Garbage Out”.

Learning Impact on Mental Models

Within the Learning Organization, Mental Models are adjusted and modified as new experiences are gained, providing new inputs and conditions change. For well managed organizations, these new inputs are often gathered from the employees through suggestion boxes, feedback loops and, important to this topic, the lessons learned or retrospection from our projects. The difference between performing and not performing can be as small as ensuring these modifications to the collective Mental Model of the organization in fact, take place.

Modification to the collective Mental Model through feedback and effective communication is an example of Team Learning. Team Learning is no more than taking the talents of all the members of a group and sharing them in a manner that produces effective results. This would be the antisepsis of what Lesson Learned is capable of producing when effectively employed. The question would arise; how can you have team learning when you are not capturing and applying what your team has learned from past activities?

Systems Thinking is thinking about and understanding the behavior of a system and the interrelations thereof. Again this would be an integral part of what a lesson learned. We take what happened determine why it happened and then use that information to improve the process the next time. In the context of lessons learned; systems thinking is the feedback loop which promotes constant development of the team and the individual. And it is this constant development that is personnel mastery.

This brings us full circle in how lessons learned are part of a learning organization. If an organization is employing the five parts of a learning organization they have no real choice but to capture and use the lessons they learn from every activity. Most organizations understand this relationship, but have difficulty in application it due to complexity as well as the practicality of capturing in a manner which they believe would be useful. We will discuss some of the options in later post, but would like to start with the thought that simplicity is the key.



Senge, P. M., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R. B., & Smith, B. J. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. In P. M. Senge, A. Kleiner, C. Roberts, R. B. Roos, & B. J. Smith, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (p. 593). New York: Doubleday.

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