After Action Reviews

"The Army's After Action Review (AAR) is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised. Yet, most every corporate effort to graft this truly innovative practices into their culture has failed because, again and again, people reduce the living practice of AAR's to a sterile technique." -- Peter Senge
An After Action Review can be thought of as a pocket Knowledge Management System. It allows you to bring out and share the knowledge that every employee has.

A Leader should guide the After Action Review, rather than direct it, as it is worker centric and focuses on what was done correctly, incorrectly, and how to do better next time around.

Introduction

An After Action Review (AAR) is an assessment conducted after a project or major activity that allows employees and leaders to discover (learn) what happened and why. It may be thought of as a professional discussion of an event that enable employees to understand why things happened during the progression of the process and to learn from that experience. Examples of when to use it are: introduction of a new product line in a production facility, after a busy holiday season in a retail store, introduction of a new computer system upgrade, after a major training activity, a change in procedures, etc.

 


Photo by Fred W. Baker III and courtesy of U.S. Army

 

Also, the AAR does not have to be performed at the end of a project or activity. Rather, it can be performed after each identifiable event within a project or major activity, thus becoming a live learning process (the learning organization).

The AAR is a professional discussion that includes the participants and focuses directly on the tasks and goals. It is not a critique. In fact, it has several advantages over a critique:

  • It does not judge success or failure.
  • It attempts to discover why things happened.
  • It focuses directly on the tasks and goals that were to be accomplished.
  • It encourages employees to surface important lessons in the discussion.
  • More employees participate so that more of the project or activity can be recalled and more lessons can be learned and shared.
As a leader, you are responsible for training your workforce. The AAR is a tool that can assist you with developing your employees. It does this by providing feedback. Normally, feedback should be direct and on-the-spot. Each time an incorrect performance is observed, it should be immediately corrected so that it will not interfere with future tasks. During major projects or activities, it is not always easy to notice incorrect performances. Indeed, in many cases, the correct performances will be unknown for these projects or activities as they are learning activities for all the participants. That is why the AAR should be planned at the end of each activity or event...so that feedback can be provided, lessons can be learned, and ideas and suggestions can be generated so that the next project or activity will be an improved one.

An AAR is both an art and science. The art of an AAR is in the obtainment of mutual trust so that people will speak freely. Innovative behavior should be the norm. Problem solving should be pragmatic and employees should NOT be preoccupied with status, territory, or second guessing "what the leader will think." There is a fine line between keeping the meeting from falling into chaos where nothing real gets accomplished, to people treating each other in a formal and polite manner that masks issues (especially with the boss) where again, nothing real gets accomplished.

Steps for Conducting the AAR

An AAR may be formal or informal. Both follow the same format and involve the exchange of observations and ideas. However, formal ones are normally more structured and require planning. While informal ones are conducted anywhere, anytime in order to provide quick learning lessons.
  1. Gather all the players.
  2. Introduction and rules.
  3. Review events leading to the activity (what was supposed to happen).
  4. Give a brief statement of the specific activity.
  5. Summarize the key events. Encourage participation.
  6. Have junior leaders restate portions of their part of the activity.
  7. Do not turn it into a critique or lecture. The following will help:
    • Ask why certain actions were taken.
    • Ask how they reacted to certain situations.
    • Ask when actions were initiated.
    • Ask leading and thought provoking questions.
    • Exchange "war stories" (lessons learned).
    • Ask employees what happened in their own point of view.
    • Relate events to subsequent results.
    • Explore alternative courses of actions that might have been more effective.
    • Complaints are handled positively.
    • When the discussion turns to errors made, emphasize the positive and point out the difficulties of making tough decisions.
    • Summarize.
    • Allow junior leaders to discuss the events with their people in private.
    • Follow-up on needed actions.
       
If you become an AAR facilitator, which every leader needs to do:
  • Remain unbiased throughout the review.
  • Try to speak to draw out comments from all.
  • Do NOT allow personal attacks.
  • The focus should be on learning and continuous improvement.
  • Strive to allow others to offer solutions, rather than you offering them.
A properly conducted AAR can have a powerful influence on the climate of your organization. It is part of the communication process that educates and motivates people on to greatness by sensitizing them to do the right thing. It can prevents future confusion on organizational priorities and philosophies and drive home the point that we learn from our mistakes.

Reference

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A Leaders Guide To After Action Review (TC 25-20) (1993). Department of the Army.