Reliability & Maintenance Center Training Work Processes Workforce

Maximize Learning From Experience

EP Editorial Staff | December 19, 2018

Participating in a simple, well-led After Action Review (AAR) can help plant teams refine immediate, hands-on experience into lasting, practical wisdom.

By Jake Mazulewicz, Ph.D.

The more experience you have, the more reliable, efficient, and safe you are, right? Well, not necessarily. Consider a mechanic brazing a pipe, an IT technician updating a network, or a manager hiring a new employee. Each of these experts can learn from their direct, hands-on experiences, but many don’t. In fact, most of us can name at least one person who claims to have 20 years of experience, but who really has just one year, repeated mindlessly 19 times.

It’s been estimated that workplace errors cost businesses, including production plants, billions of dollars annually. Sure, automation, software, and clear procedures help maximize reliability, efficiency, and safety. Still, in our 21st-century workplace, many of us have forgotten what veteran experts know is a timeless, critical skill: how to refine immediate, hands-on experience into lasting, practical wisdom.

While few workers can claim that their literal survival depends on learning quickly and effectively, soldiers can. Consequently, it was U.S. Army soldiers who, many years ago, developed a simple, yet highly effective, step-by-step learning-from-experience procedure known as the “After Action Review (AAR).” Are such reviews in your toolkit?

To lead an AAR, gather a team of two to six people away from distractions immediately after a job. Then ask the following four questions:

• What did we set out to do in this job?

• What did we actually do in this job?

• Why did our job turn out this way?

• What will we do differently next time?

Leaders who ask these questions to genuinely “get into” them achieve dramatically better results than leaders who ask in a way to just “get through” the exercise. Choose your approach wisely. Here are a few tips.

Successes, not failures.

If you lead AARs only for incidents, your team will only learn to despise AARs and similar processes. Instead, lead them for successful jobs that are complex enough to yield valuable, non-obvious lessons. Eventually, you can also use AAR for a few failures now and again. Keep the ratio at about 12 to 20 successes to 1 incident.

Choose the right group.

Groups of two to six people generate better AARs than larger groups. Avoid observers at all costs. AARs are for participants only.

Listen, don’t lecture.

The best AAR leaders are often the most trusted people in a team, regardless of title or rank. These quiet professionals ask good questions, then listen without lecturing.

Seek trust, not data.

Guarantee that any honest mistakes revealed in AARs will not be used against personnel. Gradually earn trust by improving systems, not punishing individuals.

Learn more.

Like any complex skill involving human interaction, you can practice basic techniques after reading one article. Excellence, though, takes years of reading, mentoring, and practice.

Just imagine how reliable, efficient, and safe your team could be if you regularly led great AARs. EP

Based in Richmond, VA, Jake Mazulewicz, Ph.D., is director of JMA LLC. He teaches leaders and technical experts across the U.S. how to reduce, mitigate, and learn from workplace errors. For more information, email and/or visit



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