Is your business remembering the lessons of the past?

"Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself." – Eleanor Roosevelt

Last week I was walking past a small local warehouse when I overheard a conversation taking place between what looked like one of the supervisors and a storeman. They were 'debating' what had happened to some lost stock – something about someone not recording the paperwork properly.

It was an innocuous conversation really, but it struck a chord with me. I knew, because I used to work in that sort of environment, that the same conversation was probably taking place in hundreds of warehouses, large and small, across my city that day. They took place yesterday, and they would take place the next day. Ad infinitum.

Back in my days as a manager, and then management consultant, I used to spend a lot of time trying to prevent conversations like this. When something went wrong – like a product getting lost on the shelves – we would try to work out why it had happened and then change our procedures so that the same problem didn't reoccur.

Sometimes our changes didn't make a difference, but often they did. We would then move on to the next problem as it arose.

The same thing happens in most workplaces, whether factory, warehouse, office or hospital. Find a problem, attempt a fix. If that doesn't work, try something else. I'm sure that's what the two men I overheard were doing.

The repetitiveness of this type of situation raises the question: If many people in workplaces spend a lot of time fixing problems, why is it that the same problems keeping reappearing, over and over and over again?

The answer is simple: because organisations rarely learn from their mistakes.

People come and go. With average tenures continuing to fall, especially amongst younger workers, the 'corporate memory' of most workplaces rests in the heads of an ever-smaller number of long termers. This means there is, or should be, plenty of fresh thinking coming in, but it also means that a lot of history is lost.

And when the past is forgotten ... mistakes have a knack of reoccurring.

So how to fix this? High turnover is unlikely to go away any time soon, but that doesn't mean nothing can be done. Investing just a little time to record situations as, or soon after, they happen can make a big difference.

Recording 'lessons learnt' or 'corporate history' in a form that future employees can absorb is one way of doing this. It need not be a long and complicated process. We're not talking about writing War and Peace here, and nor are we talking about detailed process mapping. A few short interviews leading to a document of a few pages might be all that's needed to preserve the lessons – good and bad – of a particular project.

The aim is to capture the 'story' of a project – or 'the year that was' or 'my time as CEO' – as a readable, engaging story that future employees will enjoy absorbing. 'Keep it simple but do it often' is the key.

Of course, this applies as much to remembering successes as it does to remembering mistakes, though of course we all know that it is the mistakes we learn the most from.

If this sounds like all too much, the capturing of corporate histories and lessons learnt is a service that we can provide. No project is too big or small, though we recommend starting small and focused (on a single project or short period) is the best way to go. Read more here.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

Thumbnail image – Charly W. Karl (Flickr), used under Creative Commons license.

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