After Action Review (AAR) Process

Learning from Your Actions Sooner Rather than Later:

A typical project review is done “post mortem” – after the fact, and well past any opportunity to change the outcome. You finish a project, and then you study it to determine what happened. From there, you decide which processes to keep and what you’ll do differently next time.

That may help the next project – but it’s too late for the project you’ve just finished. What’s more, if your projects overlap with one-another, you may have already wasted too much time and too many resources in your current project, possibly even causing harmful effects.

Wouldn’t it be better to evaluate along the way – so you can capture lessons learned after each milestone, and improve performance immediately? This is where organizations of all types, across all industries, could benefit from an ongoing review process.

The After Action Review (AAR) process was developed by the military as a way for everyone to learn quickly from soldiers’ experiences in the field. With this system, critical lessons and knowledge are transferred immediately to get the most benefit. The “field unit” has an opportunity to talk about what happened, and other teams can then use this experience right away. This helps the whole organization improve in a timely manner.

Benefits of AAR:

AARs provide an opportunity to assess what happened and why. They are learning-focused discussions that are designed to help the team’s and the organization’s leaders discover what to do differently. For example, when conducting organization-wide training, you might complete an AAR after the first training session, with a view to analyzing what to do better in the next session. Or, if you’re changing your manufacturing process, you could do an AAR after completing the first 100 units, instead of finishing the entire run.

It’s important to note that AARs aren’t limited just to large or formal projects. You can use them after staff meetings or regular operational functions, like month-end accounting. Also, when a safety incident occurs, an AAR can reveal important lessons.

An added benefit of the After Action Review process is that they improve communication and feedback within teams themselves. Because the focus is on learning instead of blaming, the process itself leads to improved understanding of team performance, and helps people think about how best to work together to produce better results.

Conducting an AAR:

An AAR is a structured meeting that does the following:

  • Focuses on why things happened.
  • Compares intended results with what was actually accomplished.
  • Encourages participation.
  • Emphasizes trust and the value of feedback.

For the AAR process to be successful, the team needs to discover for itself the lessons provided by the experience. The more open and honest the discussion, the better. Here are some of the key elements of an effective AAR:

  • Discuss the purpose and rules – The AAR does not seek to criticize negatively, or find fault. The emphasis should be on learning, so make this clear right from the start to achieve maximum involvement, openness, and honesty.
  • Use a facilitator – A neutral person helps focus the discussion. This person asks questions and can often lead the discussion in such a way that it remains nonjudgmental.
  • Talk about TEAM performance – The AAR is not about individual performance. Look at how the team performed, and don’t assign blame.
  • Conduct the AAR as soon as possible – For feedback to be effective, it should be timely. By doing an AAR quickly, you’ll get a more accurate description of what happened. It also helps ensure that all (or most) of the team can participate.
  • Encourage active participation – When setting the rules, talk about trust. Emphasize that it’s OK to disagree and that blame isn’t part of the discussion. Personal attacks must be stopped immediately. Setting the right tone for an AAR is extremely important.
  • Focus the discussion – If you ask, “How do you think that went?” this can be too broad a topic to discuss. Instead, direct participants to think about specific issues or areas: “How well did you cooperate?” “How could communication have been improved?” “What planning activities were most effective?”
    • Discussion questions typically center around three themes:
      • What was supposed to happen? What did happen? Why was there a difference?
      • What worked? What didn’t work? Why?
      • What would you do differently next time?
  • Remember to ask open questions, so that participants don’t think that there’s a “right” or “wrong” answer:
  • What would you have preferred to happen?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • How could bad situations have been prevented?
  • In your opinion, what is the ideal procedure?
  • Write the key discussion questions on a whiteboard or flipchart. This helps participants focus on the main purpose of the meeting.
  • Let the team talk – This is an exercise in good communication, not just feedback and continuous learning. The better that team members communicate with one another and work out differences, the stronger they’ll be in the future – both as individuals and team players.
  • Record recommendations – Write down the specific recommendations made by the team. Then forward this information to other team leaders and stakeholders. This is how AARs contribute to organization-wide learning and improvement.
  • Provide follow-up and training – If no one follows up on the recommendations, then the process is wasted. Create a system to ensure that the ideas gathered in the AAR are incorporated into operations and training activities.

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