Dive: lessons learned

I'm switching teams at work this Friday and I want to jump off the start line. The best way to do this, I think, is to steal ideas from those who went before you[1]. In a slack moment, I let myself float and thought... What makes a good lesson learned? Who did it best? Worst? Are there any frameworks or standards for it? Any other works that are basically lessons learned but not branded as such?

I can't get sidetracked on that thought forever. Dropping off the pace to collect some lessons learned from similar programs at work will be tolerated for a few moments, but getting out the magnifying glass to consider the minute details of an abstract lesson learned is a good way to get kicked. Abstract ideas can be elegant, but at work are tolerable to the extent that they are useful.

So I need some help. I'm going out to the usual places to search for things (AIAA, IEEE, PMI, ACM, Google Scholar, etc.), but I want to know what else is out there—especially if it's not in aerospace. Applying aerospace solutions to aerospace problems works fine most of the time, but it cuts out a lot of good ideas and sometimes leads to inbreeding. If you need some bounds, assume I'm working in hardware/software systems, but a system is just a subsystem that has interfaces to project management, knowledge sharing, change control, etc. The net is wide—for now.

For me, the gold standard is NASA's Lessons Learned System, https://llis.nasa.gov/. I suspect there is some history written somewhere about why this database is as good as it is, but suffice it to say that post-Challenger or post-Columbia or whenever the system was setup, the people at NASA should have been experts at self-reflection, if not self-flagellation.

That kind of leads me to believe that in addition to lessons learned, searching for disaster inquiries about Ariane 5, DART, Mars Polar Lander, etc., might also lead to interesting results, but I think I'll aim at lessons learned as much as possible.

Bonus points: lessons learned in a Chinese context, or at least how to search for them. The best I've got is an idiom, 前车之覆,后车之鉴 (qiánchēzhīfù, hòuchēzhījiàn)—literally, the overturned cart ahead is a warning to the carts behind—but I suspect there's a more formal, project management term for it.

Comments work best. Email (/about) works nicely. I'll be appending my own notes here in Evernote as I collect them this week: Lessons learned.


[1] "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." Steve Jobs attributes that line to Pablo Picasso in his interview in Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires. Nice thought. Bunk quote by Picasso. More information than you require here: Garson O'Toole, "Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal", Quote Investigator (2013-03-06)

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