Finding Improvement through After-action Reviews

By Matthew Hulme, CAPP, MPA

The after-action review (AAR) is extensively used in the military to garner feedback on how teams performed during an incident or event. In fact, it was used so often that it became the standard by which any task was deemed to be complete. Any menial task could be “AAR’d”, sometimes with hilarious results. We’ve even AAR’d an AAR, providing feedback on what could be improved during the next AAR to gain even more insight into the team’s performance. Despite the eye rolls when everyone was gathered up to conduct one of these reviews, I learned to embrace the value of the AAR later in my military career. Now, I strategically use the AAR when I want to evaluate the performance of my team on the civilian side of the house.

It’s important to set ground rules during an AAR session. Most importantly, the forum is open to everyone involved in the event and all individuals have a voice no matter their title or position. Participants should feel free to share ideas and questions respectfully and there should not be a rush to find a solution. Finally, the focus should be on problem-solving and collective improvement, not individual performance.

With the participants gathered and the ground rules set, dive into the event to be reviewed. Compare what was supposed to happen with what actually happened, remembering that perceptions of success may differ between participants. Leadership may guide the session but should generally take notes and refrain from interjecting. Remember, the value of an AAR is to learn how to perform better next time, not defend the decisions made this time. Go into the session with an open mind, committed to become an organization that continuously learns from effective feedback.

Matthew Hulme, CAPP, MPA, is parking services supervisor with the City of Cincinnati.