Learning about Emergent Learning, Part 2

Early Civilian Adopters of After Action Reviews: Shell Oil, Harvey-Davidson, Geerlings & Wade

February 19, 2004

How do you transform your organization into a learning organization? Shell Oil, Harley-Davidson, and Geerlings & Wade are three companies that have been early adopters in the use of After Action Reviews (AARs) to foster organizational learning.

This article is the second in a series about After Action Reviews (AARs)--a practice, which if inculcated in your organization’s culture correctly, can help it become a more agile culture--one that embraces change. The best practice of AARs can lead to emergent learning--getting better at getting better by weaving learning into ongoing work.

The practice of After Action Reviews was pioneered in the U.S. Army. In part 1[1] of this series, emergent learning consultants, Marilyn Darling and Charles Perry, chronicle the U.S. Army’s experience with AARs at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center (NTC). In this report, Darling and Parry describe the experiences of some of the early adopters of AARs in the civilian world: at Shell Oil, Harley-Davidson, and Geerlings & Wade.

"There is real gold in answering the simple question `Why don't we have what we want today?'.. Most companies prefer to bury their mistakes, or they just deny those mistakes and move on. But real learning remains hidden if you don't clearly define success up front. And you don't learn if, at key milestones, you don't ask the question `Have we achieved success, and if not, why not?'"-- Judy Rosenblum, former Chief Learning Officer, Coca-Cola Company[2].


After grounding ourselves in the Army's experience with After Action Reviews, we sought out early adopters in the civilian world. We wanted to know what draws a civilian organization to try out AARs, and what happens when they do. We talked with civilian adopters about what they considered to be successful and not-so-successful AAR experiments. What distinguished the ones that worked from those that didn't, and what lessons can we draw from their experience that might be of value to future adopters?

Shell Oil may be the earliest civilian adopter of the AAR method. With General Gordon Sullivan (Retired) on their board of directors, Shell started using AARs in 1994 during a dramatic transformation in their governance structure--a time of turmoil and, often, of personal pain. Then CEO Phil Carroll had a passion for learning. AARs were a natural fit and the motivation to learn was high. Since then, Shell has continued to support the use of AARs from the corporate level. Their challenge now is to make it part of the culture at a local level.

AARs have been introduced to the company by a grassroots method. "Making AARs mandatory would kill them here," commented Jim Tebbe, who is Manager of Continuous Performance Improvement for Shell Exploration and Production Company, and a major proponent of the method at Shell. "Employees need to hold an AAR because they see real value arise from performing them, not because someone tells them to do it." A team of learning consultants developed an educational kit that is available on request and the consultants respond to inquiries and requests from local line businesses.

Other corporations, such as Fidelity, IBM and Harley-Davidson, have operationalized an on-going AAR practice in a particular unit of the business. It is interesting to note that this has often been under the leadership of an ex-Army officer. Fidelity's Jim Papazian, who served in the Army for four years, is Operations and Command Center Manager for Fidelity's Security Services. He is developing an AAR practice to support the security function at Fidelity. Papazian's strategy is to "walk before you run. When we first got started, I tried to make it too complicated. Then a light bulb went off. Keep it simple." He is focusing first on solidifying the process in-house within Fidelity's Security Services, before he makes it visible to other areas within the Fidelity companies.

IBM's Dr. Beach, a former member of the faculty at West Point, uses AARs with his team to hone a leadership development program. "There's not a lot of technology involved," comments Dr. Beach. "It's just us sitting down with a pad of paper, an open mind, and a desire to get better."

Ted Gee, who spent eight years as an Army officer, is using an AAR practice to prepare for new model introductions at Harley-Davidson's Kansas City plant. Steve Danckert, who also served for eight years, including six months in the Persian Gulf, uses an AAR practice to manage warehouse operations at Geerlings & Wade. We will review Gee's and Danckert's practices in more detail in the next section.

Still others have experimented with the practice on an opportunity basis. Several early experimenters have expressed the desire to broaden and institutionalize an AAR practice. For instance, according to Sharon Hardy, Manager of Organization Development and Training at Harley-Davidson, "the Product Development Center at Harley-Davidson is exploring ways to integrate AARs more regularly along the way, making these a part of the standard process, rather than waiting until a project is done."


A major hurdle we see in successfully adopting the AAR as a learning practice is that what people expect of an AAR impacts what they get from it, and what they expect is shaped by the AAR experiences to which they've been exposed. For example, if people see AARs used as a one-time intervention to correct a tactical problem, or at the end of a project to document lessons learned, that is how they are likely to use it themselves. Though these are valid uses of an AAR, if this has been your total AAR experience, we believe that you have not seen AARs deliver their full value.

An important lesson we took away from our study is that there is no one "right" way to design an AAR practice. In fact, we found quite a range of variations that were all valid examples of the AAR process, and all working quite well. To illustrate some of that variety, we will start by outlining stories of three very different AAR practices that contain the seeds of Emergent Learning (see page 3). Each is used in a different setting--in companies of different sizes, in different industries. Each is used in a different function--planning, manufacturing and distribution, and for different purposes--start-up, annual planning and on-going operations. Each story shows how the core AAR process has been adapted creatively to the situation. Each in its own way exemplifies some of the defining principles of an effective AAR design, which we will return to later in this report.

Shell Improves an Annual Planning Process

Shell's exploration group conducts an annual planning process. As with many organizations, it is an intense, complex process, conducted at a pace that makes meeting and communication difficult. "The people and the process are changing all the time," commented Jim Tebbe. "They have to create things from scratch, but they always get it done."

In 2001, as the exploration group approached the midyear halfway mark, the planning team decided that they could benefit from doing an AAR with Tebbe's assistance.

As Tebbe describes it, this was an especially productive AAR. "They slowed down long enough to think." As with most planning processes, the planning team required information from the businesses, which got delivered in varying degrees of completeness. What they realized was that members of the team had different perspectives on what their role was in the planning process and how much responsibility they should take to complete what was given to them by the businesses. This lack of clarity about their responsibilities, and a lack of communication between members, had resulted in a fair amount of duplication and re-work.

At the end of the day, they hadn't come away with just tactical lessons, but had gotten at what Tebbe called "the intangible stuff" that would make the tactical corrections work. Since that AAR, the team has introduced a scheduling tool to help clarify roles and time expectations. They've also started holding short weekly videoconferences to maintain up-to-date communications across the group.

They were about to launch the second phase of their planning and wanted to avoid the stress of phase one. Tebbe posed an interesting idea...


1) See “Learning about Emergent Learning, Part 1”, http://www.psgroup.com/doc/products/2004/2/BP2-12-04CC/BP2-12-04CC.asp.

2) Webber, Alan, “Will companies ever learn?,” FastCompany, Oct. 2000.


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