After Action Review
Many organizations involved in the Katrina disaster could improve their organizations and enhance future disaster responses by adopting the After Action Review system of the US Army.
Two decades ago the US Army developed a new management and learning technique that works in any organization – government, corporate and non-profit. The After Action Review (AAR) has great utility for the US Army since they have high turnover and many new recruits to train. With a huge organization conducting complex and diverse missions around the globe, how does the Army retain the lessons learned? How is knowledge passed on? How is knowledge retained?
At the core of the AAR system is a non-threatening review technique after an operation by the participants in a “what happened” review versus “the plan”. Through the AAR sessions a team, a division, an organization or a company can systematically go forward and improve its performance. The goal of the process through the systematic review of AAR’s is to correct mistakes and sustain successes.
A series of core questions leads the discussion of the group:
- What was our intent?
- What did we accomplish?
- Why were there differences?
- How do we sustain what we did right?
- How do we improve what we did wrong?
 Challenge of Continuity
Any organization that establishes an AAR system will have to decide on a method to institutionalize the lessons learned. In phase one the organization can establish the habit of having groups, teams and divisions utilize AAR’s. But, there needs to be some way to catalogue the AAR reports and to make them available and easily accesable to others. Some type of accessible database is needed. The US Army has done this for their system and has an ability to pass on the organizational knowledge to future generations.
 Related Best Practices
- Harvard Business School has a kit that assists in the introduction of the AAR system. Harvard Business School also has two other modules for the “learning organization”. The three modules are:
- “Learning Before Doing” – A case study of a system developed by Timken Company
- “Learning While Doing” - A case study of a system developed by General Electric
- “Learning After Doing” – After Action Review system developed by the US Army
- “Building a Learning Organization”, David Garvin Harvard Business Review, July 1993. A good article that explains the AAR system in detail.
- Donald Clark provides a good overview of the AAR system.
- The Fire Fighters training site has many links, references and articles including Harvard Business Review.
- “Hope is Not a Method” by Gordon R. Sullivan and Michael V. Harper, Random House, 1996. An excellent book on organizational learning and renewal. It documents the AAR system in the US Army.
The author of this article is Terry Gardiner.
Terry Gardiner is the founder and President of Silver Lining Seafoods and NorQuest Seafoods - a medium size Alaska seafood processing companies; and currently Board member of the Anvil Corporation, an employee owned company specializing in oil and gas engineering.
His co-operative experiences include member director of the Commercial Fishermen Co-operative association; creation of legislation for the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank; and advisor to the US Dept of Health and Social Services for the state Health CO-OPs.
Terry served ten years as a member of the Alaska House of Representatives -several legislative committee chairmanships, Speaker of the House, Chairman of the Alaska Criminal Code Commission and board member on various state and federal boards and commissions.
Terry authored the leadership book, "Six-Word Lessons to Build Effective Leaders: 100 Lessons to Equip Your People to Create Winning Organizations".