In 1907, a children’s book was published entitled, Jim: Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion. Sounds frightening, right? The author, Hilaire Belloc, knew that there are two ways to learn: the hard way, through trial and error, and the easy way, through storytelling and learning from other’s mistakes.
While none of us intentionally wants to serve as a cautionary tale, we can probably all agree on the value of learning from others, so we do not repeat their mistakes or, more importantly, in order to replicate their successes.
In the fall of 2018, as our organization purposefully shifted to a culture of learning, Lewis Tree Service began using After Action Reviews (AARs). Originating in the Army and since adopted by many critical-outcome industries, AARs are a structured, debrief process for understanding events especially when there’s deviation from the norm (i.e., positive or negative) and lessons to be learned.
At Lewis, we offer six simple questions and let the situation guide the conversation.
- What was expected to happen?
- What actually happened?
- What surprised us?
- What went well and why?
- What could be improved and how?
- What did we learn that would help others?
If it is the end of a long day in the pouring rain and dinner is waiting, the AAR can be a quick, five-minute conversation. The point is to hold an AAR while the memory is still fresh but also to be respectful of people’s time.
Initially, as an organization, we were focused on the safety application of AARs but as we grew more comfortable and began appreciating the value they were bringing to us in terms of learning and improving, we began extending how we used them into further applications.
One of the first uses of our AAR process beyond safety incidents or close calls was to analyze our 2018 storm response after Hurricanes Florence and Michael. As a team, we discussed the different stages of storm deployment (e.g., mobilization, staging, active duty, and demobilization) and documented the key lessons learned in our storm preparedness plan. In 2019, we actively used the AAR process in real-time during our storm calls to probe on surprise, unmask hidden risks and discover weak signals. By sharing stories, we helped our mobilized craftworkers plan for safety in unfamiliar conditions.
More commonly, we now use AARs as a feedback mechanism after a training session, workshop or conference or as a 30-, 60- and 90-day check-in for new tools that have been rolled out to the field. They’re a great source of information when refining processes and seeking continuous improvements.
We’re also finding that AARs are a useful, on-the-spot tool when coaching a new person or training someone on a task. By discussing the responses to each question in real-time, we’re building expertise-based intuition in new situations that can quickly and positively influence our organizational practices and effectiveness.
Our most recent adoption of AARs has been to debrief after customer meetings. We’re learning that we all hear things differently and if we don’t have an immediate, post-meeting huddle, we may miss critical cues and key action items that would truly make a difference for our customers. To be effective partners and fully engaged in our customers’ success, there’s no better use of our time.
AARs: They’re not just for safety anymore.