The NHS Long Term Plan highlighted several safety issues that need to be addressed: the fear of blame and retribution which curtails reporting and learning, lack of staff understanding of patient safety matters and workforce issues. This short article summarises what I have learnt about how After Action Review (AAR) can directly address the first two of these and indirectly impact on the third.
AAR is a deceptively simple process for learning from any every day or exceptional 'action', which takes the individual expectations and experiences of the same event to build a shared mental model of what happened and use this as the basis for learning and action planning. To be successful it is essential that AARs are led by a trained AAR 'Conductor' who uses a defined four-question process and a universal set of AAR 'ground rules' to create a safe learning environment. The other vital component, which is often missing, is the organisational context in which the AARs take place. This needs to be set up to support the AAR approach to learning with leaders championing the process and the practice and believing in the value of organisational learning.
“The After Action Review has democratised the Army. It has instilled a discipline of relentlessly questioning everything we do. Above all, it has re-socialised many generations of officers to move away from a command and control style of leadership to one that takes advantage of distributed intelligence.” Pascale, Millemann and Gioja, 20001
We can learn much from the military’s use of AAR. The problems created by its hierarchical structure are similar to ours in medicine, especially the fear of the consequences of speaking out and voicing a different opinion to your superiors. Research confirms that junior staff are often reluctant to question the direction or decisions of their seniors, even when they feared patients were at risk of harm.2 Fear of the consequences also limits open and honest reporting of incidents, restricting the potential gains of learning at the system-wide level and at the local level. Yet consistent and widespread use of AAR in battlefield and training environments has reduced the fear of blame and retribution and increased effective communication through the ranks and transformed the speed and value gained from learning.
It has done this in part because every AAR creates a safe environment for learning due to the actions of the AAR Conductor and the organisational commitment to using AAR. Professor Amy Edmondson has spent over 20 years researching the components of effective 'work groups' and summarises what increases team performance as "psychological safety". It can be defined as "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career".3 High levels of psychological safety in clinical teams have numerous benefits for safe and effective care.4
My experience has taught me that with repeated and regular use of AAR, the psychological safety experienced during them, shapes and influences behaviour positively outside of them.
Another reason AAR works to improve patient safety is the quality of the learning and changes in behaviour coming out of them. Here the research is also very clear. A meta-analysis of research into AARs5 demonstrated that the learning coming out of AARs can improve team and individual performance as much as 25% when compared to control groups. This analysis of research in a wide variety of settings showed that participants learnt so effectively through the AARs, that they were able to perform and deliver up to 25% more effectively afterwards. This is because the participants in the AAR are fully involved in their own learning so instead of being talked at, they are being asked to make sense of the shared picture of the event that has been generated in the AAR. The responsibility for learning and change in an AAR, therefore, rests with the participants and is directly relevant to them. In a clinical setting this means that improvements in safety and behaviour can start the minute the AAR ends. Contrast this with an investigation, where the learning is owned by the investigator and the organisation that employs him or her, and the responsibility for change rests far away from those involved in the action.
The quality of the shared mental model that is created in the best AARs directly supports learning about patient safety matters as the individual participants access other people’s experiences to gain an overview of an issue. The skilled facilitation by the AAR Conductors is a vital part of this, as once a safe learning environment is established, cognitive biases and prejudices are reduced and clearer thinking is possible. Patient safety learning is also greatly enhanced through AAR because of both its 'learn as you do' approach and the fit with effective adult learning theory models. AARs do not require clinical staff to leave the ward for days at a time for traditional teaching about patient safety. Instead AAR practice makes it possible for learning about patient safety to become an everyday habit and, therefore, more effective. Since the AAR process allows individuals to learn for themselves what happened and what got in the way or enhanced safe, effective care, it is mapped onto the individuals own knowledge base and makes a more lasting impact.
The last feature of the issues highlighted in the NHS Long Term Plan concerning patient safety was the workforce. My experience of facilitating hundreds of AARs in clinical settings has highlighted its potential to reduce the stress levels of staff as the supportive no-blame environment encourages greater clarity and less personal blame. Lower stress levels will have an indirect but valuable effect on staffing levels as sickness absence may be reduced and retention boosted.
This is just a summary of some of the features of the AAR approach which I know will enhance patient safety. Other AAR Conductors will have more insights to share, and the academic researchers in the US and Israel universities many more.
I would love to discuss AARs further with you, contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Pascale RT, Millemann M, Gioja L. Surfing the Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business. Three Rivers Press; 2000.
- Crowe S, Clarke N, Brugha R. ‘You do not cross them’: Hierarchy and emotion in doctors' narratives of power relations in specialist training. Social Science & Medicine 2017; 186: 70–77.
- Kahn WA. (1990-12-01). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work". Academy of Management Journal 1990; 33(4): 692–24. doi:10.2307/256287.
- Edmondson AC, Bohmer RM, Pisano GP. Disrupted routines : Team Learning and New Technology Implementation in Hospitals. Harvard University Administrative Science Quarterly 2001; 46: 685–716.
- Tannenbaum SI, Cerasoli CP; the Group for Organizational Effectiveness. Do Team and Individual Debriefs Enhance Performance? A Meta-Analysis. Human Factors 2013; 55(No. 1): 231–245.
About the Author
Judy is a subject matter expert in the After Action Review (AAR) approach and over the past ten years has been instrumental in developing AAR for use in the NHS, higher education and corporate environments. After 35 years working in the NHS, in a number of roles, she has recently joined a private consultancy to help a wider audience gain from the AAR approach.