How-to: Project post-mortems

Have you ever noticed your group making the same mistake over and over? (Or perhaps your customers have noticed for you?)

Personally, I hate making mistakes. I think I’ve stunned a few vendors when we dug through a problem and found it was their fault. They were expecting to be yelled at, but I was too relieved at not having made the mistake myself. For that reason, long ago, I started the practice of project post-mortems for just about everything I was involved in — including a weekly student newspaper.

post-mortem tools

It’s important, at the end of any project, to stop and ask:

  • What did we do well — what should we keep doing?
  • What did we do badly? Do we need to fix it or was it just bad luck this time?
  • What can we do better?

That said, there’s an even more important thing to do than that:

Write it down.

Make a punch-list of things you learned from the last time. Change processes right away, if possible, to make things work better in the future. Never wait for things to calm down, because then the ideas are forgotten or the initiative is lost. Do it now — strike while the iron is hot.

You can even act on what you did well, because there could be a chance to do it even better, or to do something else the same way.

Older readers may remember a TV show called “Quincy, M.E.” The episodes did not end when Quincy, the coroner, found out the cause of death. Each week, he badgered the city’s (apparently) sole police detective, or various never-seen-again officials, into fixing the problem, whether it was toxic waste or a killer. Quincy did not just do his job, have a beer in (apparently) the world’s only bar, and go to sleep; he tried to make sure it could never happen again. That is our job as consultants, managers, or even as freelancers. Figure out what we did well and what we did poorly, and make sure we do better next time.

The path to flawless efficiency is from not just making mistakes, or learning from mistakes, but putting your new-found knowledge to work. After every project, do a post-mortem — and then take action.

David Zatz, Ph.D

David Zatz focuses on using research and data for targeted change efforts, including employee and customer surveys, linkage, process mapping, and process consulting. He has spoken at conferences and has published articles in journals (such as HRMagazine, Quality Digest, and Effective Executive), trade publications, and books. David has worked with clients such as the American Management Association, Arthrocare, BTI Americas, the Coast Guard, Enhanced Vision, General Fire & Casualty, Mattel (American Girl), Santen, and the City of New York. David holds a B.A. in psychology from Rutgers University, and an M.Phil and Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology from Columbia University.