After Action Reviews

When was the last time something went wrong in your business? I know, don’t laugh, it was probably yesterday. Things go wrong. Frequently. That’s part of running a business.  The more important question is, what did you do to prevent that problem from happening again?

The tendency is to move on, forget it happened, and hope it doesn’t happen again.

But that is short sighted. If you don’t take the time to figure out what went wrong, it is likely to happen again.

My high school history teacher was fond of quoting American philosopher George Santayana, who said: 

“Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

This can also be phrased as “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In other words, it’s healthier, smarter, better strategy for your company, to evaluate what went wrong instead of moving on and forgetting what happened, only to have it happen again.

Whether the problem was a new employee suddenly quitting for no explainable reason or an unhappy customer upset over their bill, it’s a good idea to try and figure out why this event happened. Or, after you’ve finished a big project, it’s a good idea to evaluate how it went. Even if it wasn’t a problem and it did succeed.

The best method I’ve found for doing this is called an After-Action Review (AAR). I learned it at a conference a few years ago. It was originally developed by the Army in the 1970’s and has since been used frequently by businesses.

After Action Reviews

The way I learned it you start with the framework:


  • Set the time of the AAR 
  • Tone—nameless and rankless
  • Execution vs. Objectives—did we meet objectives? Yes or no.
  • Analyze—ask why, why, why?
  • Lessons learned—capture root causes of what went right/wrong
  • Transfer lessons learned to organization
  • High note—always end on a high note

To start, you Set up the meeting and invite all relevant team members to participate. In different cases this may mean different people. It depends on who was involved or needs to be included in the analysis.

The Tone–nameless and rankless–means that everyone participating is considered equal for the duration of the review. It doesn’t matter if you’re the president of the company or the janitor, your voice matters and your opinions count as equally as all others.

For the Execution vs Objectives, you are evaluating whether you accomplished what you set out to accomplish. If you’re assessing a problem, you already know you didn’t accomplish your objective, but it’s about digging deeper. Figure out what the objective was and how your execution failed to meet it.

Analyze is about determining why what happened happened. The best way to do this is to ask “why?” repeatedly to get to the real root cause. Keep digging until you’re sure you’ve gotten to the very bottom of the problem.

Lessons learned is about figuring out what didn’t work and what did. This will help you determine what needs to be changed in order to prevent any problems that occurred from repeating. It also helps you learn what worked so you can repeat that part next time.

Remember, Transfer lessons learned is paramount to improving your organization. If you don’t implement changes, then the problem will likely recur. After the meeting you’ll want to be sure the new rules or policies are put into place.

Ending on a High Note helps keep things positive as you move on and implement the changes.

After Action Reviews

During the meeting, focus on accomplishing the above seven criteria by asking the following questions:

AAR Questions

  • What was supposed to happen? (objectives)
  • What actually happened? (“ground truth”)
  • What were the positive and negative factors here?
  • What have we learned and how can we do better next time?

It’s helpful to have someone take notes and use them to create policy changes after you finish. I’d also recommend that you leave plenty of time, not rush the process. Let everyone add their perspective. Without judgement. Everyone experiences events differently. Therefore, hearing from each person will give you a better depth of understanding of the entire event.

I’ve found this process extremely helpful in improving the way we do business.

Every time we get through our busy season, we do an AAR to figure out how to improve our processes and make next year smoother. We also do them whenever we have an unexpected situation that causes a problem.

Knowing your history means understanding what you did that went right and what you did that didn’t go so well. And then, making changes to prevent your company from repeating the bad parts of your company history.

Be brave, be bold. Risk facing the negatives, don’t hide from them. Improvement comes from accepting that you made a mistake and fixing it, so it doesn’t continue to happen.

Sherry Lutz Herrington is the owner of Sherrington Financial Fitness, a business consulting and accounting firm specializing in strategic business planning and solid financial accounting for businesses. She is also the author of Strong Women Thriving (, a blog which focuses on empowering women to be financially savvy, particularly after experiencing financial abuse. Sherry is currently writing a book that both shares her personal story and addresses financial abuse. She can be reached at for more blogs!

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