Lessons Learned and Air Force One: The Secret Weapon In Continuous Improvement for Your Company


The phone on my desk startled me, its shrill ring even vibrated the computer monitor in front of me.  Without thinking, I reached for the handset and answered,  “87th Flying Training Squadron – Captain Guenthner speaking – How may I help you?”

I immediately recognized the voice on the other end of the line.  “Captain Guenthner, this is Jessica with Presidential Flight Support.  Air Force One and the President are traveling to Seoul, South Korea in two weeks.  We need you to start coordinating immediately.”

My response was an unquestioning, “Yes, Ma’am.” I hung up the receiver.

I sat there silently for a moment and stared at the monitor. A few seconds earlier I had been intensely working on graduation reports for the next class of T-38C pilots from Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas. They were preparing to transition to their follow-on fighter aircraft and I was facing a difficult deadline to get their paperwork accomplished in time.

And now – in the space of a ten-second phone call – my top priority became preparing and planning for the safe and effective arrival of the President of the United States, Air Force One and the entire crew to Incheon Airport in South Korea.

For two years, while assigned to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, I served an additional duty as an Air Force One Advance Agent.  Whenever requested, I would suspend my responsibilities as an Instructor Pilot and travel in support of the Office of the President and Air Force One.  The White House deemed me a “representative” and I coordinated with the Secret Service, the FBI, White House Staff, local law enforcement, local emergency services and airfield representatives in order to ensure the safe arrival of Air Force One and its valuable passengers.


Secret Weapon: Lessons Learned

I had been to Seoul several times before, but I did not have the connections or the resources to discover everything I would need to know to make this trip happen in the short timeframe. To plan a successful mission, I needed to leverage my secret weapon: Lessons Learned.

Lessons Learned are experiences distilled from a project that should be actively taken into account in future projects.  These experiences should be specific, actionable and results oriented.

In 2008, the Harvard Business Review identified the value of instituting a similar process:

“For maximum impact, knowledge must be shared in systematic and clearly defined ways. Sharing can take place among individuals, groups, or whole organizations. Knowledge can move laterally or vertically within a firm.”[1]

Each branch of the US military utilizes a shared Lessons- Learned program to improve individual and organizational performance – the Army uses the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) and the Marines use the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL).  The Air Force One program is no different – we utilize a collection of Lessons Learned called the AF One Advance Agent Database (AFOAA).

At Afterburner, we’ve worked with thousands of companies and helped them develop a culture of continuous improvement and learning.  However, even organizations that perform regular debriefs, post mortems or after-action reviews often fail to collect and disseminate lessons learned throughout their organization.


Lessons Learned Create Safe Landings

I quickly logged into the AFOAA database and searched a collection of thousands of trip reports.  I searched for the key word “Seoul” and several reports rapidly populated my screen.  The most recent one was from several years prior when George W. Bush was President.  That trip report documented everything I needed to know to Plan, Brief, Execute and Debrief a Flawlessly Executed mission:  lessons learned that addressed the names of Secret Service contacts, airfield representatives, airfield information, local law enforcement, senior ranking military members, all of the information I needed to put together a safe arrival for our Commander in Chief.

The mission was a complete success – the aircraft and the President arrived and departed safely and without incident – all because I utilized my secret weapon – Lessons Learned.

A world-class, game-changing Lesson Learned is worthless – unless it is shared. Do you have a process to transfer and share these incredibly valuable lessons with your organization?  Does your company have a culture of creating and sharing Lessons Learned to accelerate learning and organizational performance?

[1] Garvin, David A. “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 01 Mar. 2008. Web. 09 June 2016.