Brendan T. Kelly is the Senior Administrator, After Action Review, in the Office of the President at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. He’s worked in human resources and talent management to develop effective processes and improve the flow of communication. Brendan has twenty plus years leading, teaching and facilitating the AAR process, while serving in the U.S. Army. Additionally, he has served as a Leadership Education teacher, providing high school students with knowledge of how to analyze events and plans. His passion is helping team members and organizations improve upon what they do to excel in future events. Brendan received his Bachelors of Science and his MBA from Columbia Southern University, he is also a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.
As a member of the U.S. Army for over twenty-years we used the After-Action Review process before, during and after all events. The AAR was planned for and incorporated into training, deployments and projects. Whether it was an in-formal AAR, used to learn on the spot. Or, a formal AAR that followed immediately after an event was over.
Now that I am working in higher education as an AAR senior administrator I have reached out to colleagues in other colleges and universities, only to discover that the AAR process is mostly used in their emergency management’s department, if they have an AAR process at all. Used as a follow-up to emergencies or natural disasters. While I do understand the use of the AAR in this area, they are missing the opportunity to use all the benefits of an AAR in other areas on their campuses.
The U.S. Army developed the After-Action Review process in the late 1970’s. They had to address and understand how best to train and prepare for the future. Thus, the idea of learning from what we’ve done to improve what we do led to the After-Action Review. The AAR process asks four main open-ended questions to participants. Guided by a facilitator, participants answer what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, what went right and wrong as well as what to do differently next time.
When these questions are answered, they lead to new questions and answers, the open and respectful discussion leads to discovering lessons learned. Participants begin to understand the “why,” and when the “why” is understood, engagement amongst team members is higher.
There are many benefits of incorporating the After-Action Review into higher education. The first one I’d like to share is that it creates and promotes a culture of learning.
When all participants, regardless of position or tenure with the organization, can respectfully listen and learn another’s perspective, it helps to develop understanding. When we can share openly and respectfully, without the fear of repercussions, we can then grow as a team and develop trust.
Another benefit is for leadership and individuals to learn more about their organizational and individual strengths and weaknesses. I’m reminded of the saying, “You only know what you know. And, you don’t know what you don’t know.” This is so true and sometimes fellow colleagues or subordinates just might be embarrassed or afraid to share this.
Fear not though, none of us are perfect and we all have room for growth.
So, whether you do it on your own or with a team, take time to explore and share your organizational and individual strengths and weaknesses. After all, we are all in this together, we succeed as a team.
A few other examples of what an After-Action Review will assist with is identifying problems or missing processes.
The AAR will foster an environment of transparency and accountability, not finger pointing or shining a light on someone who has made a mistake, but simply being open and honest and committing to improvement.
Keep in mind that it is not about solving every problem or coming up with the biggest and best ideas, all that would be great, but simple and small steps to process improvement are just as good.
As an After-Action Review senior administrator with the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas, our leadership had a vision and developed a plan that included a focus on process improvement. For a process improvement plan to be successful we must first learn what needs improvement, what’s not working and understand the why.
Developing a new process and department is always time consuming and one must be enthusiastic, the champion for this new information and to not get discouraged. Being a current office of one I decided to use a grassroots process, telling the AAR story to every group and person that would listen to me.
I did my homework and learned the potential challenges I may face and the thoughts of our staff, faculty and students on campus. During my research I discovered a March 2022 survey by Grant Thornton, strictly focusing on employees in higher education, 59% of those surveyed felt that their voices were not being heard.
The McCrystal Group recently spent some time on our campus and upon completion of their analysis one of the challenges our organization is faced with is effective communication. Looking at our previous three years of employee’s Gallup polls results; our lowest score was that our team members feel their voices are not being heard.
Communication is a vital part of the AAR process and a vital part of any organization that plans to be successful. To have quality communication organizations, leaders and team members have to develop a level of professional trust.
Like many things, clear and precise communication needs to become a habit and then it’ll be the norm. This includes the sharing of information and experiences. In my research and from speaking with people on campus I also learned our departments tend to work in their own silos. The sharing of information and best practices isn’t the norm.
This is something an AAR address, the sharing of lessons learned and best practice.
During a cabinet meeting one of the members shared with me prior to the meeting that he included four questions that might look familiar to me in his presentation.
Sitting in my office working on some AAR notes another colleague stopped by to share her excitement of the AAR implementation across campus – she even started using it in her meetings.
Then I received an email from someone I had yet to meet, they were to be a part of AAR training for key leaders in our Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine department. She mentioned incorporating the AAR in her role and that the After-Action Review guide I developed would have been very helpful years earlier.
The training sessions and AARs that I have completed thus far are working. The feedback has been positive and people are wanting to share, learn and improve what we do.
I think about the Kaizen approach, those familiar with Six Sigma or Lean will know this, it is a proven approach, which means continuous improvement that must be incorporated in your arsenal to achieve cost effective perfection. Though this wasn’t about being cost effective, more about being people effective, which leads to cost effectiveness.
The AAR helps to discover potential waste and it also helps to discover all of the great things our team members are doing. This cannot and should not be overlooked. These are easy transferable actions for us to incorporate into future events and actions.
I have more work to do on my campus, training and guiding leaders to discover lessons learned and I want to help our students learn about the AAR process as they prepare for their professional journey. After-Action Reviews are designed to help with and even at times remove barriers so the flow of communication, engagement of team members and productivity improves.
When leaders, team members and key stakeholders are able to see this impact and understand the value of a quality After-Action Review process the future is wide open.