In September 2011, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) approved the revised NATO Lessons Learned Policy which provides the overarching policy for Lessons Learned in NATO.
What is Lessons Learned?
The term Lessons Learned (LL) is broadly used to describe people, things, and activities related to the act of learning from experience to achieve improvements.
The idea of Lessons Learned in an organization is that, through a formal approach to learning, individuals and the organization can reduce the risk of repeating mistakes and increase the chance that successes are repeated. In the military context, this means reduced operational risk, increased cost efficiency, and improved operational effectiveness. A NATO Lesson Learned is defined as:
"An improved capability or increased performance confirmed by validation when necessary resulting from the implementation of one or more remedial actions for a lesson identified."
Lessons Learned describes more than just learning from experience. Learning must be used to justify changes that will lead to improved performance. This is made clear in NATO's Joint Doctrine for Operations, which states:
“The purpose of a Lessons Learned procedure is to learn efficiently from experience and to provide validated justifications for amending the existing way of doing things, in order to improve performance, both during the course of an operation and for subsequent operations. This requires lessons to be meaningful and for them to be brought to the attention of the appropriate authority able and responsible for dealing with them. It also requires the chain of command to have a clear understanding of how to prioritise lessons and how to staff them.”
Everyone within an organization needs to be involved in learning lessons for the Lessons Learned Capability to be successful. A lesson is not learned until something changes in the way we operate, and the ones who need to change are the ones affected by an issue—the stakeholders. The stakeholders must be the ones who learn. Likewise, stakeholders are likely the first, and often only, personnel who will be aware of potential lessons—observations and lessons identified—since it is they who are most closely involved with the issue. Unless these potential lessons are submitted via a Lessons Learned Process, it is unlikely that Lessons Learned Staff Officers will be able to discover their existence in order to even begin the learning process. The stakeholders must share their potential lessons.
Everyone in an organization has a responsibility for learning lessons, but the Lessons Learned Staff Officer is central to the organization's efforts to engage everybody in seeing the value of learning lessons.
The NATO Lessons Learned Capability
NATO defines its Lessons Learned capability as follows:
"A Lessons Learned capability provides a commander with the structure, process and tools necessary to capture, analyse and take remedial action on any issue and to communicate and share results to achieve improvement."
The purpose of the NATO Lessons Learned capability is to learn efficiently from experience and to provide validated justifications for amending the existing way of doing things in order to improve performance for (subsequent) operations.
The NATO Lessons Learned capability comprises several important elements. Strong leadership support and a positive Lessons Learned mindset across an organization are extremely important, governing the success of real learning, sustained improvement, and profitable knowledge-sharing among the Allies.
The NATO Lessons Learned Process
The following chart describes the stages of the NATO Lessons Learned Process:
As can be seen in the chart, the NATO Lessons Learned Process is divided into several phases. The first phase, the Analysis Phase, begins with Gathering Observations. An individual within NATO makes an observation: "a comment based on something someone has heard, seen or noticed that has been identified and documented as an issue for improvement or a potential best practice." The Commander of the given body may provide guidance on the critical areas that need to be addressed for improvement. The observer, supported by Lessons Learned Staff Officers and Subject Matter Experts within the Chain of Command, then analyses the observation to identify its root cause.
Once the root cause is understood, an appropriate Remedial Action that will address the root cause can be identified to correct the problem or sustain success. A Remedial Action is, "an activity or set of activities that corrects an issue identified for improvement or facilitates the implementation of a best practice." Additionally, the person or organization which should execute the Remedial Action will be identified during the Analysis step. The output of the analysis is a Lesson Identified.
A Lesson Identified (LI) is defined as, "a mature observation with a determined root cause of the observed issue and a recommended remedial action and action body, which has been developed and proposed to the appropriate authority." Once an LI is developed, the Remedial Action Phase begins.
The first step in the Remedial Action Phase of the NATO LL process is Endorsement and Tasking. During this step, developed LIs will be presented to the organization’s leadership for them to determine how to progress the LI through the LL process. First, the LI will be endorsed whereby it is approved for further action and the proposed Remedial Action is accepted or modified to be acceptable, and then an Action Body will be formally tasked to plan and implement the Remedial Action. The leadership also commits to providing the resources needed to implement the Remedial Action.
The next step of the Remedial Action Phase is the Implementation and Monitoring step, during which the Action Body will prepare and implement their Remedial Action through the use of an Action Plan and the LLSO will support leadership in monitoring its implementation.
After the Remedial Action has been implemented, some form of validation is needed, in order to verify whether the original issue has been successfully solved. Verification may involve further work and analysis, possibly using exercises or experiments.
Following the completion of the Remedial Action and successful validation, the LI will be deemed a Lesson Learned and the formal LL process concludes. However, it is important that further dissemination and publication of the information occurs. Dissemination of the Lesson Learned enables all parties to put the improvement into practice. Sharing of information takes place during the entire process.
If you wish to learn more about Lessons Learned and the NATO Lessons Learned Process, we recommend you to consult the NATO Lessons Learned Handbook.
The JALLC’s role in the NATO Lessons Learned Process
Within the overall NATO Lessons Learned Process, the JALLC's primary focus is the contribution of analysis expertise to operations, training, exercises, and experimentation. In essence, the JALLC analysis projects take Joint Analysis Requirements (JARs) through to the Lessons Identified (LI) stage of the NATO Lessons Learned Process. The JALLC is NATO's focal point for Lessons Learned analysis and facilitates the sharing of lessons among Allies as well as with non-NATO nations and international organizations as appropriate.
On request, the JALLC, through the JALLC Advisory & Training Team (the JATT), can provide Lessons Learned Outreach to Nations and NATO commands and agencies to assist in the establishment of their own Lessons Learned capability as well as provide advice on its implementation. For more information about the JALLC’s Lessons Learned Outreach activities, see the JATT's page on this website.
To facilitate the sharing of lessons within NATO, the JALLC has developed and manages the NATO Lessons Learned Portal. For more information on the NATO Lessons Learned Portal (NLLP) see the NLLP page on this website, or go directly to the NATO Lessons Learned Portal.