Coaches and players always carefully review film after the game. They analyze how they did, what they did well, and what they missed... what they might have done better.

Is there an analog to reviewing the game film outside the world of sports?

In some high-reliability work environments, yes there is. From its origins in the military, the so-called “after action review” (AAR) provides just such an analog. It is a parallel process to reviewing and learning from the game film.

When a military team completes an exercise (or a live mission), they do not just go on to the next thing. They look for the strengths they need to identify, make explicit, and positively reinforce, and they look for ways they can improve. Were they all clear on the big picture — did the whole team have an accurate “shared knowledge state” at all times?  Did they communicate and give feedback, appropriately, as they went about their work?

What a terrific idea!

In my experience, a prompt, careful review of our work is not widely or systematically done in most organizations, unless there has been an accident. And even then, the accident review is frequently lacking in depth and detail as a real learning and improvement exercise. The accident investigation as typically done, focusing on identifying hazardous conditions that may have contributed to the event, and deciding who did what wrong, usually does not greatly help the team learn collectively to work more safely.

In general, whether the work was done perfectly or whether mistakes and missed opportunities occurred, a well-run AAR, deeply involving the crew and their leaders can help the team learn collectively to work more safely.

Broadcasting a positive cultural message

Some very recent behavioral science research has pointed up a valuable collateral benefit to the AAR. Emergency response teams (such as firefighters) clearly do perform better, and continue to get better when they participate in well-run AARs after a call, as one would expect. Error rates and accident rates come down. But additionally, and interestingly, such teams also consistently rate their overall safety culture as more positive, to the extent that such AAR’s are commonly done.

 It is as though an organization that allows and encourages employees to take the time after a defined piece of work to reflect and learn about safety, is broadcasting a strong message about how that organization values safe work, and what it expects from its team members in terms of watching out for themselves and their coworkers.

Related research further indicates that AAR’s are especially associated with positive outcomes when a group norm is created that allows “dissent”. That is, team members feel that they can raise counterpoints and disagree (respectfully) with other team members as well as with their leaders, as they review their collective work. Put differently, they do not feel that they must self-censor, and whitewash a situation when they feel, for example, that mistakes really were made or valuable opportunities really were missed.

Before you go home

I know that at the end of a workday folks are ready to go home. Still, think about the multiple benefits of a brief post-shift huddle, in which members feel free to speak up and give their candid feedback and are valued for doing so. How did we do today? Did anything unexpected come up? How did we handle it? Were we all on the same page?  What did we do best? What can we do better tomorrow? How, specifically?

All things considered, generalizing from the comparable work in the military and in civilian high-reliability work environments, the benefits of such AARs are considerable. The evidence makes clear that the occurrence of such reviews correlates with worker perceptions of a positive safety culture, and with reduced error and accident rates — affirmative goals in every organization.

In all our work environments, the AAR could be a valuable weapon in our safety arsenal. All the data support the conclusion that such after- action communication is few minutes well spent — very well spent indeed.