Sunday, April 12, 2009

After Action

This is a skill and a tool, something I really want to teach a class on.  Learned correctly and utilized consistently it can lead to steady improvement anywhere. It was especially designed for emergency services and big operations, but I started using it on Uses of Force with my team in booking and in a few months we were preventing more incidents than ever, and those few we didn't prevent went smoother.  It was one of the tools that allowed the Tactical Team to make such huge strides in such a short time.

The After Action Debriefing is simple, but it is also very easy to do half-assed or to misunderstand the intent. Then it is pretty much useless.

---Get all the involved people together.  They are officially called 'stakeholders'.  It has to be the people involved directly in the situation, as many of them as possible.  If there are too many, each group does a mini AA and a representative brings the results to the big AA. Here's one of the things that makes me want to teach a class- I recently heard about a very highly placed, skilled and experienced administrator who wanted to get the AA done in a timely manner and held it with the next shift. Not the shift that dealt with the problem, but the shift that was present when the administrator arrived. At best, this will produce armchair quarterbacking on incomplete or inaccurate information. It could potentially change policy based on such bad information, which is worse.

Once the stakeholders are gathered, there are three simple steps:

1) Describe what happened.  I usually start with a white board.  Each person, one at a time, describes what they saw.  From that, a time line goes up on the board. Very rarely will anyone remember things exactly the same. That's good. No one person's view will be complete. That's good too. There will even be contradictions. Don't worry about it. Once everyone's description is down* you will have a pretty good three-dimensional idea of what you are actually talking about.

2) What did we do right?  This is important.  Partially to keep it from turning into a bitching or blaming session, but also to validate your people.  Generally, most things turn out far better than they could have. Everyone at the AA is breathing, for one thing.  If you or the facilitator can't come up with anything good, the problem is in you and you need to remove yourself or the facilitator not only from the process but from the organization to avoid poisoning it. 

3) What can we do better next time?  Notice this is not, 'what did we do wrong?'  This is for solutions and improvements, not for blaming or wallowing. No bedwetters allowed.

It is hard, but it is okay to say, "That went about as well as it could have."  You need a strong moderator, because humans like to monkey with stuff and if you put them in a room and say, "Make it better" they will come up with something, and that something might be as stupid as installing a radio in an ice cube. The moderator also has to watch for 'unknowns'.  Whatever decisions made were made with the information at hand.  "If we had only known..." would have led to a better solution, but you can no more wish for information you don't have than for equipment you don't have. If someone can brainstorm a way to get that information under those circumstances, great. That becomes something you can do better- intelligence gathering.

The thing with the AA is that you get better every time. Most often it's just a small increase in skill or knowledge for a single team or individual- "Right, with that much OC the handcuffs were the only thing that weren't slippery. Good idea."  Or a reminder on the super-basics, like communication.  For some reason people forget to talk when they're amped.

Sometimes it's bigger and you find a hole in your training, something you have been told is true that might be true only sometimes or not at all.  Sometimes you find a policy or practice that can be improved for safety and efficiency (but be careful with that one, because sometimes policies written to prevent danger can increase the risk from another direction or stifle creativity).

But sometimes I think the biggest value is the way that people who do this a lot come to see the world and think.  It becomes a natural part of life to break it down: What am I really seeing? What's good about it? How can I make it better?

Not a bad way to live.

*You can debrief solo. 


Melissa said...

I think that would be an incrediably valuable class. To teach people how to teach themselves in their own unique environment (location is only a small factor of the environment)could possibly be the most valuable skill that you can teach.

Please start developing that idea....

Just my armchair quarterback opinion.....

Take care of yourself!


Irene said...

This process is valuable because it is so very transferable. AA reviews are just as useful and applicable in assessing software development projects or conferences as they are in Rory's line of work.

Unknown said...

You should write another book. Maybe I could get my Chief to read it. We recently had a Sgt get the absolute crap kicked out of her on a call. The Chief has aspirations of becoming the Sheriff one day and is riding this ugly incident in the media like a rented mule. The truth of the matter is that she screwed up. She used bad tactics. But it's a dirty little secret that we whisper about amongst ourselves because it would be heresy to El Queso Grande. Needless to say, there has been no AA or debrief. Like Santayana said -we must learn from history or be doomed to repeat it.
PS - I know that I'm certainly not perfect. At the end of every shift I take 10 minutes and ask myself this question " How many people could have taken me out today if they'd really wanted to?". The answer can be very sobering.

jks9199 said...

You absolutely should put together a class on conducting after-actions. My current assignment is on a regional task force where we move between tactical work and detective work and paperwork, sometimes several times each shift. Our usual "after-action" debrief consists of "Anybody got anything? OK... report time tomorrow is..."

Why? Because nobody really outlined what SHOULD be done as well as you have here. And we have picked up on some things in our debriefs... but how much have we not picked up on?

Yet this is something that a patrol squad can use after a call or pursuit or whatever... Or my unit can use after a search warrant or some other op. Or an FTO can use with a rookie!

Rory said...

A senior administrator arrogantly asserted that everyone above a certain level had been trained in de-briefs. The debrief finally happened on the incident. It turned into a witch-hunt where a couple of the players will hate each other forever... so obviously 'everybody' didn't include the people present. Frustrating. I thought this was very common. Is it really that rare?

jks9199 said...

"The debrief finally happened on the incident. It turned into a witch-hunt where a couple of the players will hate each other forever.."

THIS is quite common. A functional debrief, where people aren't looking to either get on the road home or blame someone for what didn't happen the right way... That's rare.

My agency's GOs state that a debrief WILL be held following any pursuit. Most of those "debriefs" consist of the sergeant getting the info he needs for his report to the brass, not assessing who did what, what went well, what could go better, etc. If they aren't pretty much omitted...

Let me use some examples of how poorly we've debriefed events. Some years back, we had an officer badly injured in a motorcycle crash. When they finally did any sort of debrief more than 2 weeks later -- I was the only person present who'd been working that day. Yes, it was the squad that had been scheduled... but various people had been off, and members of other squads had filled in. Real effective debrief, huh?

In another incident, they did get the people involved to the debrief. Again, it was weeks after the event... and it came across very strongly as if the detectives were pointing the fingers of blame at patrol for how things were handled... without addressing their own failings. Meanwhile, patrol is scrambling to protect their assets... and walked out feeling very much as if they had been thrown under the bus. (Maybe because they had been...)

You've actually put more information out right here than many people supposedly trained in "debriefings" are aware of.