After Action Review: The benefits vs. the obstacles

Making planning more effective, part 4

Last time we covered the basic elements of After Action Review (AAR) and spoke briefly about how readily they can be transported into the workings of emergency response organizations. We noted that not only is this approach applied widely in military operations, but it has also been successfully applied in areas such as business, manufacturing and marketing.

So why haven’t we rushed to embrace it in our world?

A big part of the inhibition may come from a subtle but strongly ingrained aversion to criticizing our own actions or, worse yet, standing to criticism from others. Our actions are usually seen as benevolent, if not downright heroic.

And, in all but the most aberrant cases, we can typically claim success. After all, every fire eventually goes out; all bleeding eventually stops.

But a fire does its damage in the interval between ignition and extinguishment, so how much time is consumed in that interval makes a real difference to that person whose home, property and memories are being converted to colloidal ash and scattered to the winds through the thermal column.

The process of putting out a fire wreaks its own havoc on the structure, even beyond what the fire itself consumed. Sometimes it can be a toss-up to determine whether more damage was attributable to the process of combustion or the process of suppression, especially from the homeowner’s view of what’s left. And if the bleeding stops only as a result of gross desanguination, odds are that the outcome wasn’t one we or the patient were seeking.

How well, how quickly, how efficiently and how effectively we do the stuff that puts the brakes on the problem is the essence of whatever difference we truly make.

Still, when something goes clearly, inescapably awry, even if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t have made it come out differently, we suddenly go into hardcore, take-no-prisoners critique mode. We take it apart, look at how we did things, dig into anything that might have made a difference, and strive to ensure that we don’t repeat whatever it was that got us into trouble.

We convene blue ribbon panels, commission elaborate recreations and simulations, publish detailed “no holds barred” reports, and hit the trade show circuit to explain how those poor souls should have done things differently. All too often, we build altars and offer up human sacrifices from among the surviving to atone for those who were lost.

But all the while, we know in our hearts and in our guts that there’s simply no amount of ex post facto exorcism that can undo stuff that’s already happened.

Before problems arise, not just after
Think how much more effective we could be if learning from our experiences was a systematic, organizationally driven, everyday effort in everything we do. Even more to the point, think how much better prepared we’d be to deal with things that fall outside the envelope of our usual encounters.

After all, the best way to prepare for the Big One is to make sure you always have the basics handled. That way you can focus your attention on the things that make the Big One big.

The traditional system of critiquing the Big One is rife with limitations. Darling and Parry (2001) noted several drawbacks of reflective processes as compared to the AAR approach:

1. They are done once in the life of a project, generally well after any opportunity to modify the outcome has been exhausted.
2. The focus is usually on drafting recommendations to be implemented by someone other than those making the recommendations.
3. The report generally goes somewhere “up the chain” rather than back to where the work was done.
4. The process for conducting the reviews is usually an afterthought, not an integral part of the project built into it from the start.
5. These are usually lengthy sessions with mandated attendance, where everyone has to come, but few may see the “local value” for what they’re doing now.
6. Too often, these sessions are called when someone perceives failure or flaw, or when unusual levels of stress and conflict are anticipated or experienced. The result is sessions that focus on dissecting past failures rather than building future success.

These distinctions are essential to the effectiveness of the AAR process. Unlike the post mortem critique, the AAR is an expected part of all evolutions and is planned into every project from the beginning, to take place repeatedly throughout the effort so that improvements can be made at any step. It deals with the routine aspects as well as the exceptions, with the quality and reliability of basic performance a central aim.

It’s a planning and development tool, rather than a way to fix flaws and apportion fault and blame. It’s designed to find good processes and make them stronger, not just to find weaknesses to correct. It’s easy to see how this could ultimately affect every aspect of readiness and execution.

Capturing experience
Given the technology we hold today, it should be easier than ever before to put our experience to work in this sort of fashion. It’s becoming more important than ever, too.

Everyone talks about how the emergency response business is changing, but the pace with which various forces are pulling us forward is much greater than the speed of change we’ve designed into our organizations. We can no longer depend on “OJT” to ensure that every rookie learns his or her trade by following a seasoned veteran into the belly of the beast.

Things just don’t happen that way anymore. The fires aren’t as frequent, and the ones that get away from us do so with a vengeance unlike the “bread and butter” fires of a generation or so back. Those “seasoned veterans” are retiring in waves now, and with them leaves a ton of experience that never got written down or passed along as efficiently as it should have been.

We have to capture the experience we gain systematically and make it work in the same way that the “peacetime army” had to learn to capture the experience of battle without waging war.

Especially in those emerging aspects of our expanded missions, things like disaster and terrorism, where the events we must confront are by their very nature and intent novel and uniquely challenging, we have to be creating ways to ensure that our capacity to execute the basics of our response repertoire is constantly reinforced, constantly expanded and constantly improving.

We have to redefine ourselves as what Peter Senge called a “learning organization,” one that constantly transforms itself by systematically promoting the learning and growth of its members with respect to its mission. We have to move beyond planning and response to embrace each encounter as an opportunity to get better and grow stronger.

We’ll talk next about how that effects our efforts to promote another critical and fundamental change in our enterprise.


Darling, M.J., & Parry, C.S. (2000). From Post-Mortem to Living Practice: An in-depth study of the evolution of the After Action Review. Boston: Signet Consulting Group

Senge, P.M. (2006). The Fifth Discipline. New York: Random House.

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