Weak Debriefs Are Killing You

In the book, Flawless Execution, author and former U.S. Air Force pilot James Murphy describes how the Air Force uses a continuous improvement process to reduce errors, casualties, and losses.

Two of his recommendations struck me – how the Air Force prepares for missions, and how they learn from them – the debrief.  I think the debrief is a serious weakness in most companies.

Murphy states the U.S. Air Force has perfected the debrief process so anything learned from one mission can be applied 2-3 hours later in another mission.

Pilots are required after every mission to candidly review the mission, consider what went right, discuss where improvement is needed, and clearly define changes to make in subsequent missions to improve success.

This debrief process is exalted in Air Force circles as the key to their 98% mission completion rate.

Debriefing on board  USS    Ronald Reagan    (CVN-76)

Debriefing on board USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76)

Now, in my work with Clients I find there are three critical, interdependent parts to successful service delivery:

  1. Plan

  2. Deliver

  3. Debrief

Most service providers are reasonably effective at planning and delivering.  However, any debrief is minimal because they move so quickly from ticket to ticket, project to project, and Client to Client.  When problems occur, the common approach is to glance at the documentation in their PSA, patch the issue, and rush forward.

Unfortunately, this is not an efficient way to operate. Problems repeat or expand, and too often the documentation lacks important details.

This is not an employee issue. It is a cultural issue and a costly procedural flaw caused by a weak system.

Instead of operating with a reactionary firefighter mentality, try implementing a debrief process for every project and major service ticket.  It will enable you to respond to issues more comprehensively so future efforts are more efficient and effective.

The Debrief Process

A transformative debrief process discusses the result of the project, what went right, where improvements can be made, and how to change processes, communication, and other aspects of future projects.

Murphy recommends a 7-step S.T.E.A.L.T.H. debrief process.  Let’s use his process, with my suggestions, as a baseline for you to implement a better debrief process in your organization:

Set the Time

I’m guessing your debriefs are either non-existent or pathetic.  The first thing to do is add debriefs to your project plans. Even small projects benefit from a good review after completion.  A comprehensive debrief is a critical part of your service delivery process.

  • Debrief meetings are mandatory

  • The time, place, and general agenda of the debrief is part of every project plan

  • During the debrief, schedule additional separate meetings for any strength or weakness that requires a more comprehensive review

Depending on the size of the project, the debrief should last a minimum of 10 minutes to a maximum of one hour.


Everyone in the debrief needs to feel safe when speaking candidly.

The first step to creating this open environment is to have a system for how debriefs are done.

The second step is to limit participation in debriefs to the people who were directly involved in the project, and when appropriate their manager.

The third step is before each debrief.  The leader of the debrief conversation is the role model for candor, humility, active listening, and decision making.

Therefore, assess your current state-of-mind before starting any debrief.  You need to treat others with respect, empathy, and kindness while facilitating clear, efficient discussion of the work completed.

If you are angry or emotionally stressed it can reduce the candor of the meeting’s conversation and damage relationships.  You cannot afford either of those losses.

Also, as mentioned above, the leader sets the tone.  Humbly admitting your mistakes, even when small, reinforces safety and encourages others to be equally candid.  Glossing over your mistakes or dismissing them destroys the debrief.

Execution vs. Objective

Limit the agenda and focus to the project completed.

Focus on the facts during the debrief.  What was the objective?  Did we meet or exceed all of the expectations for this task or project?  Was it on time?  Were the key metrics achieved?

“Yes” and “No” are the answers.  Respectfully avoid skimming over key details, allowing excuses, and indecisive conclusions.

Start by stating the objective and comment on where the project succeeded and where it could improve.

Analyze Execution

Get to the disease rather than dwell on the symptoms.  What happened?  Why did it succeed or fail?  Where can we make changes to be even better?

Were there internal gaps in communication, or with Client contacts?  Was time entry and documentation completed hourly or daily as work was completed?  Can the processes we followed be improved? 

Remember not to just focus on the negative.  The positives should also be evaluated to consider how to do more of what worked well.  This is building on your strengths.

People should not interrupt one another, or repeat what has already been said except to summarize a point and then add something new of value.

Every idea is welcomed, and reasonable extensions of ideas are considered.  The goal is continuous improvement where identified changes are then tested in upcoming projects.

Lessons Learned

Gather what you learned, transfer it to a shared server / cloud location for easy team access, and then apply what was learned.  This is critical.

Without this process, successes are forgotten, mistakes repeat and expand, and opportunities to bond your team around common, meaningful goals is lost.  (Along with a ton of profits!)

Murphy recommends each Lesson Learned is listed:

  1. Objective of the mission

  2. Result of the mission

  3. Cause of the lesson (symptom – good or bad)

  4. Root cause of the lesson (what truly caused the need for the Lesson Learned)

  5. Single Point of Accountability (SPA) – the key thing needing change to improve

  6. Time – when to implement the change, and when its effectiveness will be measured

Transfer Knowledge

Next, who needs this information, when, and how do you get it to them?

Be careful to complete each communication loop of a debrief.  There should not be silos of information, but rather one team with one plan pursuing one goal:  Flawless execution.

Knowledge without application has no value.  The Air Force applies their debrief Lessons Learned hours later in new missions.  You can do the same.  Apply proposed solutions right away so you can test their effectiveness.

The improvements you make based on your debrief meetings may prove to be the catalyst for growth and profitability you have been seeking.

High Note

First, cover the negatives and things needing improvement.

Second, review the positives and the potential positive impact of the changes that were agreed upon.

Last, but not least, remember to include sincere encouragement, gratitude, and recognition of great work.  Everyone wants to feel sincerely valued as a member of your team.  Closing with a sincere compliment to the group for their actions, ideas, conclusions, commitment…  amplifies their strengths and gives them added confidence to succeed in their next project.


Consider implementing a better debrief process.  When you think about the potential results, a well-run debrief has an incredibly high ROI.

And…  join me for a transformational deep dive into leadership in our 1.5 day Leadership 201 Workshop in the Spring of 2019 – a Varnex community exclusive!  Ask Tim Bynarowicz for more information.