After-action reviews: Improving efficiency from military to CPA firms

Written on Jul 23, 2020

By Abigail Draper, OSCPA communication & engagement manager

Firms can improve their effectiveness by 38-300% by using after-action reviews at the end of every major project, says Ron Baker, founder of VeraSage Institute.

Baker said he doesn’t claim that no learning happens without this type of review, but the percentage is significantly less than it would be if after-action reviews were implemented.

He said when employees casually discuss a projects, employers might see a 5% improvement on future performance. But even an unstructured after-action review raises improvement to 28%. This can go to 38% in or more in a structured review with a facilitator.

After-action reviews are a process the U.S. Military uses after every task or mission they complete. It is like what many call a postmortem or a variety of other names, he said.


“With a competent facilitator, the Air Force claims you'll get a 300% increase in future effectiveness,” Baker said.

These reviews can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and follow a strict schedule to determine what went well and what can be improved upon in the future. There is a facilitator as well as someone who takes detailed notes to reference before similar projects in the future.

“An after-action review, I think, is one of the best learning tools ever invented. It’s surprising to me how little it’s been adopted in the business world,” Baker said.

He said these reviews are the best way to capture “tacit knowledge” instead of “explicit knowledge.” Explicit knowledge is what people learn by reading a book or watching a PowerPoint presentation, but tacit knowledge consists of the situations they encounter in the real world.

“Explicit knowledge is reading a book by Jack Nicklaus on how to play golf. Tacit knowledge is going out and playing 18 holes with Jack Nicklaus.”

There are four questions Baker said professionals must cover in an after-action review. These are:

  • What was supposed to happen on this mission or engagement (the objectives)?
  • What happened?
  • What were the positive and negative factors of what happened vs. the objectives?
  • What have we learned and how can we do better next time?

Baker said the military has the saying, “We never want to build the same bridge twice.” In other words, if one platoon builds a bridge following given instructions but runs into some issues and determines what works better, then a platoon on the other side of the world needs to receive that tacit knowledge so they don’t make the same mistakes. Asking the above questions and recording the answers is how to make this happen.

This same process works well for CPA firms too, he said.

“The parallels between that and a CPA firm are incredible. Because we have all this knowledge laying around the firm, and yet, a lot of people don't know who has that knowledge. They don't know how to tap into it when they need it because it's not recorded anywhere.”

Baker said if firms and other businesses adopt after-action reviews instead of annual performance reviews and timesheets, future effectiveness would jump exponentially.

“I want firms to replace annual performance reviews and timesheets with after-action reviews. Take the time that you're spending on suboptimal tasks to do effective after-action reviews, and you'll get much better future performance from your team members, and in fact, everybody.”

To hear more about after-action reviews from Baker, as well as strategic planning and value pricing, attend the upcoming virtual accounting shows, including the Dayton Accounting Show on Aug. 19-20.

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