26/07/2011 07:51 BST | Updated 25/09/2011 06:12 BST

Is "Learning Lessons" Either Helpful or Reassuring?

Systems will fail. People will make mistakes. But those who lead and need public confidence to operate need to be learning lessons before things go horribly wrong.

Whenever there's a disaster or a crisis or some form of major failure, a review will be conducted. And somewhere, usually not far after the apology, we will be assured that the organisation or its leaders have "learned lessons".

It's so common a message that it's almost part of the crisis management furniture. But on further reflection, it's not at all reassuring.

Of course, it's an admission of failure. It says that things clearly went wrong so the next time they'll be better. But it doesn't build confidence since it says that we were only afforded these lessons because something really went amiss.

It says "we did not anticipate". And we might well be saying: "you should have done - it's what you get paid for!"

That may be too harsh. Systems will fail. People will make mistakes. But those who lead and need public confidence to operate need to be learning lessons before things go horribly wrong.

This may be somewhat uncharitable. Business leaders may be testing systems and people to destruction every day. They may be rehearsing worst cases and learning well in advance of the day when lives depend upon people having the right equipment in the right places at the right time.

Somehow, I think not.

People are too busy getting on with the day job. And like any of us who does not regularly back up our hard drive, we somehow assume that things will never fail. An easy mistake to make. It's up there with not putting a virus checker on your computer and never falling for internet scams.

Things will fail. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong - and usually at the point where we most need it not to. It's as if human life is organised to be blockbuster-ready.

But even giving our leaders the benefit of the doubt and knowing that every waking hour will have been dedicated to making lives better, the "lessons learned" message still falls at the first hurdle. Rarely, are the words "we've learned lessons" followed by the equally important "and this is how your lives will be better/safer/more secure" in the future. That's usually missing.

Time spent in the post-disaster classroom is of little value to those whose lives have been blighted through inaction or inappropriate action. It is of no comfort to those whose relatives and friends have died to know that those who might have suffered similar fates may not now.

Would it not be more reassuring to hear how every organisation is learning from other organisations' crises? As someone once noted, you've got to learn from other people's mistakes since there isn't time to learn from your own. And where you are forced to draw on your own experiences, it's sadly because something that has happened might have been avoided.

So when the next disaster occurs and there is a review, let's hear not just how they've learned lessons but also how it could have been so much worse had they not already taken on board all of the lessons from other similar problems over the past decade.

Let's see the evidence of anticipation and genuine improvements made without failure. Maybe then, it will sound like a genuine attempt to make things better - rather than just another line.