4 Steps to Continuous Improvement

4 Steps to Continuous Improvement.

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection.  From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action” – James Levin

Quiet reflection.   That’s not something many of us make time for in our busy lives.  This month I share a simple, fast and effective process that you can learn to improve your practices.   The technique even works to improve client relationships and develop more business.

The After Action Review (AAR) is a protocol used by the United States Army to evaluate activities and improve performance.   The AAR turns each engagement into a learning process by focusing on tasks and goals to discover why things happen.  The AAR is never about judging success or failure.  It is always about learning and improvement.

This powerful tool encourages all stakeholders to share and learn in the name of continuous improvement.  The AAR can be: (i) a formal, facilitated process at the conclusion of a case or complex transaction; (ii) a simple informal review after an every-day event, or (iii) a personal review by an individual attorney. In this column we’ll look at the simple AAR.

The After Action Review focuses on 4 essential questions.

1.            What was supposed to happen?

2.            What actually did happen?

3            What were the differences and why?

4.            What will we do differently next time?

Perform an AAR as soon as possible after an event such as a call to a prospective client, a court hearing, a negotiation session, a deposition, a partner’s meeting or even after you’ve completed a contract or court document.   Include all of the participants – including those key to helping you prepare.

What was supposed to happen?  Be clear about what you really intended to accomplish during the event.  Of course, it is very helpful if you’ve thought about this clearly in advance.   It’s even better if you’ve committed the objectives to writing. The more specific your objective the greater chance of success, and the better this process will be.

What actually did happen?   Participants have to agree on what actually happened during the event.  This may be more difficult than you think. The most important part of the AAR is adopting the right mindset.  It is not about pronouncing judgment or assessing blame.  It isn’t a place to gripe.  Instead it is an honest and unbiased assessment the sole purpose of which is preparation for the next situation.   Emotions can sometimes cloud the picture.  Take the time to have an objective conversation.   Don’t rush ahead to diagnosis yet.  These first two steps should take about 25% of the time during the review.

Was there a difference and why?   This is the diagnosis phase to determine cause and effect.   Brainstorm possible explanations and explore alternatives.  Use open-ended questions and let people respond in their own words.  Good questions can include:  How do you think we succeeded in accomplishing our goal?  Did we have the resources we needed?  Was there confusion?  What kind of preparation, resources or approach would help next time?   This phase should take another 25% of the review time.

What will we do differently?  Focus on things within your control rather than forces outside of your control.  We have the ability to influence more events than we realize.  Think critically about what can be done to improve for the next event.  But don’t forget – you should do this for successful events too.  Conduct an AAR after you win the next case or exceed your client’s expectations.   This is where you should spend the majority (50%) of your review time.

In my practice, I have successfully implemented this process in a variety of business settings.  It was so effective that I included it the courses I teach to adult learners in the MBA Program at Post University.   It’s easy to use consistently by yourself, with your colleagues and even with your clients.

As attorneys we can use simple tools like this to help our clients avoid problems, survive and ultimately thrive in business.   By going this extra mile with your client you will improve the relationship, help them succeed and grow your practice.

Coach Doug4 Steps to Continuous Improvement