The Benefit of Safety Debriefing – Developing a Culture of Learning through Lessons LearnedBy: James D. Murphy
Organizations must possess both formal and informal learning structures to adapt and thrive, and safety debriefing skills learned from a qualified consulting firm is just such a structure that is a necessity in any rapidly changing environment. Anyone who has not recognized the need for continuous learning in modern business has missed out on one of the most significant lessons learned in recent decades. The forces of rapid global change can render limited professional skill sets obsolete almost overnight. Moreover, organizations that fail to continuously revise their assumptions about their operating environment (i.e. market) or learn about trends via outside consulting will soon face obsolescence or irrelevance.
Unfortunately, the full spectrum of benefits derived from proper safety debriefing is not widely understood. The most obvious benefit of debriefing is its basic product, the lesson learned. But, this is only one of many benefits. Proper debriefing training with a consulting firm provides a powerful and essential structure for maintaining the capacity to learn and accelerate experience.
What are the benefits of proper debriefing learned from a consulting firm? They are numerous and fall into two main categories. First, there are the lessons learned – the discreet, tangible products that emerge directly from the debrief process. Then there are the leadership, cultural, and intangible benefits that arise from the consistent practice of debriefing.
Tangible Benefits of Debriefing
First, safety debriefing formally concludes a task or project. Today, one often hears the phrase "closing the loop". Although it's obvious and simple, one should not underestimate the significance of seeking closure on a task or project. When you work with a consulting firm specializing in debriefing, you'll learn it is a satisfying and productive means of "closing the loop". It allows us to confront what has or has not been accomplished and move on. And, when safety debriefing is performed regularly, it keeps the organization focused on the present and the future rather than the past.
Second, a rigorous debriefing process seeks root causes in order to construct "lessons learned". It is not enough to simply ask why something succeeded or failed. Often there are deeply imbedded and difficult to recognize forces at work. Simply looking for the obvious causes (the "how's") do not uncover the real forces (the "why's"). Proper debriefing training with a consulting firm will teach you that those harmful root causes can fester and grow to infect the organization if left unaddressed. Correspondingly, beneficial root causes, those worthy of nurturing, may die from neglect if not identified. Safety debriefing provides an opportunity to sort through the ambiguities in our complex organizations and improve at the core organizational level.
Third, once root causes are identified, actionable and specific "lessons learned" are developed. A good consulting firm will tell you that lessons learned require action to be taken, and a single individual should be responsible for implementing them. A lesson learned may require changes or amendments to existing processes, procedures, standards, rules, or regulations. It may require the further development of a plan or program to address the root cause. Or, it may simply be a list of steps for others to utilize in future tasks and plans. Since lessons learned are written in an explicit manner, they can be stored and made available for others in the future. Or, they may be communicated to everyone within the organization via some appropriate medium.
Finally, through the lesson learned, safety debriefing learned correctly from a consulting firm provides a rapid and simple approach to process improvement. Since debriefs occur frequently, seek root causes, and produce actionable lessons learned, those lessons can address process improvements without the unnecessary and slow tedium of methods like Six Sigma.
Cultural Benefits of Debriefing
The implementation of frequent and organization-wide debriefing is the first step to changing and improving the overall organizational culture. It is an exercise that, like rigorous physical exercise, improves our wellbeing in many ways.
Edgar Schein, perhaps the most respected scholar on organizational culture, states, "culture is the result of a complex group learning process." It is difficult to overstate the role of safety debriefing as just such a "group learning process". Debriefing is the sacred art of learning. It is the forum in which we absorb 'lessons learned' from ourselves and each other – for better or for worse. To take charge of that process, an experienced consulting firm can help you ritualize it, and develop it, and take control of your organizational culture. As Schein has warned, if leaders don't manage their cultures, their cultures will manage them.
The kind of culture that debriefing helps develop is one of learning, openness, and honesty. The thorough and candid nature of proper debriefing exposes the truth. Safety debriefing requires an honesty that can be ego-bruising. But, once one gets past that truth-telling hurdle, one finds that such honesty and openness gained as a part of lessons learned is contagious and spreads to daily behaviors. One of the primary goals of consulting firms specializing in debriefing is to limit people from talking behind each other's back and instead educate employees about how to actively seek out each other's advice and opinions.
Safety debriefing also aids leaders in establishing greater trust between themselves and their team. When a team thoroughly discusses each other's contribution to the execution of a task or project they come to know each other and understand each other's unique challenges and obstacles. Furthermore, they uncover the complexities that challenge them and learn how better to assist each other in managing those challenges.
Finally, safety debriefing skills gained from a consulting firm provide lessons learned for organization-wide improvements. Although debriefing begins at the very tactical or day-to-day operations level, the practice of debriefing should cascade upward in the organization. The root causes that are discovered at each level, even when those causes may be ambiguous, can be cross-referenced to identify recurring root causes. For an organization as a whole, the analysis of recurring root causes is the most powerful continuous improvement tool it can possess. Such analysis provides a capacity to identify or self-diagnose a host of organizational weaknesses.
As a learning tool, and in developing a culture of learning, safety debriefing is essential. We live in a world of rapid and often violent change that we have no real capacity to predict. Lessons learned today may save us tomorrow, but could become irrelevant next week. And while knowledge of the real world is perishable, ritualistic debriefing skills learned from a credible consulting firm can help you stay fresh and up to date.
© Copyright 2001, James D. Murphy
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