Based on their decades of product development experience at over 300 companies, James D. Hlavacek and Robert A. Nosal assert that most U.S. companies do not regularly conduct safe and objective project learning reviews (PLRs) of failures and successes. Observing that mistakes always happen in new product development, they see PLRs as helping every company objectively and safely look back to determine the root causes for both mistakes and successes of its product development projects.
James Hlavacek is Founder and Chairman of The Corporate Development Institute, Charlotte, NC, where Robert Nosal is President and CEO. Their article below presents 12 guidelines for conducting these PLRs. It is adapted from Chapter 13 of Hlavacek’s new book, Fat Cats Don’t Hunt: Implanting the Right Leadership and Culture to Accelerate Innovation and Organic Growth; United Business Press, ISBN# 978-1-945338-38-0.
To start, we recommend conducting PLRs for one or two failed projects, because typically more is learned from mistakes than successes. Later, however, be sure to conduct PLRs for every successful project.
When Mayo Clinic founder William Mayo, M.D. conducted learning reviews for failed surgical procedures, he often stated, “Deliver me from the person who never makes a mistake and also from the person who makes the same mistake twice.”
Three Reasons To Conduct Project Learning Reviews
- To learn from project failures and successes and to decrease chances of repeating the same mistakes and bad practices over and over again.
- To create a safer and more objective learning culture that is void of blame or ﬁnger pointing.
- From our experience conducting over 50 PLRs, we have seen new-product success rates improve by 30%-50%, major boosts in organic sales growth, and signiﬁcant increases in proﬁts from investments in breakthrough or new-to-the-world projects.
12 Guidelines for Conducting Successful PLRs
1.) Getting complete buy-in from the CEO or senior leadership team member is absolutely critical for conducting a successful, objective PLR. Furthermore, the company will have the opportunity to become a true learning organization if the CEO or senior leadership team member fully supports the need for a PLR and the process, and then takes the necessary corrective actions.
2.) Select recent and important projects. Too much lag time allows informants to forget what happened or to confuse details.
For the most effective learning, conduct the PLR within six months after the project was shelved, terminated or disbanded. Conduct reviews only for breakthrough projects, not the incremental or tweaking ones. Ideally, select multiple customer and global projects over single customer and regional ones. Agree on the project scope and objectives at the outset of each review.
3.) For each PLR, select two qualiﬁed and objective third-party facilitators and a point of contact (POC) person to schedule interviews and coordinate the PLR interviewing process. The POC is often an R&D or engineering manager from inside the company who is intimate with the project being reviewed. The facilitators must have excellent interviewing, listening and probing skills, and the ability to read both body language and the tone of informants’ comments.
POCs must also have many years of experience in new product and market development in a variety of industries, markets and technologies. Good facilitators set the learning tone, develop an accurate timeline of events and outcomes, and bring about agreement on what the organization should do differently the next time.
4.) Confer with the POC to identify the key cross-project team members over the life of the project. Also include as informants retirees and people who have left their respective companies while the project was being developed. External input from several customers, dealers and suppliers is vital. It is not uncommon to interview 20-30 informants for each PLR.
5.) Conduct mandatory cross-functional, customer and supply chain interviews. Typically interview informants who touched or were involved with any phase of the project. Dealers, distributors, suppliers, and users in the value chain with hands-on knowledge and experience all make good informants for developing a root-cause timeline, and often providing precise statements that support root-cause ﬁndings and corrective actions.
6.) Obtain all appropriate documents, including emails, business plans, and ﬁeld trial and project presentations; identify the reason(s) the project was approved and the critical execution actions and outcomes. Put all that information into a project timeline.
7.) Facilitators must conduct all interviews face-to-face, never by telephone, Skype, with a large group, or with others present. Exclude tape recordings or videotaping. Begin each unﬁltered interview by explaining to interviewees that no one will be penalized for their honest responses, nor will any names or titles be reported in any way. Stressing safe learning goals and the non-threatening nature of this learning process will encourage honest reporting of the facts and conclusions.
8.) The two facilitators should debrief immediately after each interview to ensure responses are remembered and recorded accurately. In every debrieﬁng, the facilitators should look for key themes, new points, veriﬁed points, contradictions, and new people to interview. They should also obtain any additional documents and new information.
9.) Develop a root-cause analysis of key events and positive and negative outcomes. Employ the critical incident technique for collecting direct observations of events that contributed either positively or negatively to the project.
Critical incidents are typically gathered by asking respondents to tell a story about their experiences with the project.The critical incident technique helps identify the root-cause problems.
The veriﬁed critical incidents can then be placed on a chronological ﬁshbone (also called Ishikawa or cause and effect) diagram. All critical incidents should focus on the project scope, objectives and key issues.
10.) Prepare a report and speciﬁc recommendations for the commissioning executive(s) stating what went well, what went wrong, corrective actions to take or that should have been taken, and include learnings needed for future projects. The real individual and team learning takes place with the corrective actions. When presenting the report, identify whether or not the problem was systemic; then explain the speciﬁc changes needed in the process and/or the new skills and capabilities that will be required for future projects.
Encourage questions and recommendations at this presentation. Group involvement will increase buy-in for the PLR process throughout the organization.
11.) Present the report and corrective recommendations more widely in the organization, including detailed training and other changes that will be Also stress the safe learning atmosphere, and have the CEO or appropriate leadership team member explain at the start of the presentation how this will be a regular process to improve the organization’s innovation process and new product success rate. Also encourage questions and recommendations from the audience at these presentations.
12.) Implanting the needed corrective actions is typically achieved by a number of approaches. First, the CEO and leadership team must state how the PLR revealed a number of cultural and product development deficiencies that must be changed.
The CEO and senior management should also present the new product development process, new capabilities and any people with new skills being added to the organization. They must also explain any new capabilities, e.g., technology, new laboratory or test equipment, or management best practices.
Next, conduct a series of high-impact training workshops for business teams throughout the organization around the needed changes in mindsets and skillsets, along with the necessary new procedures and policies. Furthermore, storytelling about company successes and failures helps to sustain and transfer tribal knowledge into best practices while identifying which practices to avoid or stop.
Finally, every good PLR depends on two critical factors: the two facilitators in charge of the process and the top management’s relentless commitment to implementing corrective actions and procedures.
The concept of continuous improvement demands conducting PLRs on a regular basis. Failure to do so often presents the alternative reality of repeating the same mistakes over and over again while hoping for better outcomes—and this is, by deﬁnition, insanity.
However, signiﬁcant improvement in new-product success rates invariably occurs in companies where the following happen sequentially: 1) Project learning reviews are safely, objectively and routinely conducted for both off-track and successful new projects, and then 2) corrective actions are taken.
If a company regularly conducts PLRs, especially for failures, it then becomes a learning organization that pursues best practices while avoiding bad practices. Conducting PLRs will invariably discover common deﬁciencies in the culture that inhibit innovation and organic growth.
In the end, the quality of every PLR is only as good as the two facilitators in charge of the process.