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After Action Review

The US Army invents After Action Review System

Many organizations involved in the Katrina disaster could improve their organizations and enhance future disaster responses by adopting the After Action Review system of the US Army.

Two decades ago the US Army developed a new management and learning technique that works in any organization – government, corporate and non-profit. The After Action Review (AAR) has great utility for the US Army since they have high turnover and many new recruits to train. With a huge organization conducting complex and diverse missions around the globe, how does the Army retain the lessons learned? How is knowledge passed on? How is knowledge retained?

AAR – A Continuous Learning System

At the core of the AAR system is a non-threatening review technique after an operation by the participants in a “what happened” review versus “the plan”. Through the AAR sessions a team, a division, an organization or a company can systematically go forward and improve its performance. The goal of the process through the systematic review of AAR’s is to correct mistakes and sustain successes.

A series of core questions leads the discussion of the group:

– What was our intent?

– What did we accomplish?

-Why were there differences?

-How do we sustain what we did right?

-How do we improve what we did wrong?

Harvard Training Modules

We used this successfully in our company, NorQuest Seafoods, and found that those segments of our company that embraced the AAR system the most religiously, reaped the most value. Originally we got a kit from Harvard Business School that assisted us in the introduction of the AAR system. Harvard Business School also has two other modules for the “learning organization” that others may find useful. The three modules are:

* “Learning Before Doing” – A case study of a system developed by Timken Company
* “Learning While Doing” – A case study of a system developed by General Electric
* “Learning After Doing” – After Action Review system developed by the US Army

There is a good article of explanation by Professor David Garvin, “Building a Learning Organization”, Harvard Business Review, July 1993.

Googling the bottomless mine of the Internet provides many resources that detail the AAR system:

* Donald Clark provides a good overview of the AAR system.

* The Fire Fighters training site has many links, references and articles including Harvard Business Review.

For the old fashioned, “Hope is Not a Method” by Gordon R. Sullivan and Michael V. Harper, Random House, 1996 is an excellent book on organizational learning and renewal. It documents the AAR system in the US Army.

Challenge of Continuity

Any organization that establishes an AAR system will have to decide on a method to institutionalize the lessons learned. In phase one the organization can establish the habit of having groups, teams and divisions utilize AAR’s. But, there needs to be some way to catalogue the AAR reports and to make them available and easily accesable to others. Some type of accessible database is needed. The US Army has done this for their system with a globally accessible data base and has an ability to pass on the organizational knowledge to future generations.