AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

A Lightweight Postmortem Process

We discussed the need to perform postmortems or AARs in our post entitled “After Action Reviews”.   Our new book includes a description of how these meetings should be run, but given the amount of time we spend teaching companies our light weight postmortem process we thought it useful to describe it in a blog post as well.

First, please understand that we think onerous processes result in the death of an organization.  We’ve often said that the point at which a company begins to hire “process engineers” is the point at which processes have gotten a bit too far.  Startups need light, adaptable processes that can grow as their needs grow over time.  The postmortem process described here is one such process.

Ideally everyone will be gathered in a single room and the room will have whiteboards that can be used during the process.  Attendees should include everyone involved with the issue or crisis and who can contribute either to a complete and accurate timeline or contribute to issues identified within the timeline.  Managers who might be assigned action items, be they process, organizational or technical should also attend the postmortem.  A single person should be identified as the Postmortem process facilitator.

Our postmortem process consists of three phases:

  1. Phase 1 focuses on generating a timeline of the events leading up to the issue or crisis.  Nothing is discussed other than the timeline during this first phase.  The phase is complete once everyone in the room agrees that there are no more items to be added to the timeline.  We typically find that even after we’ve completed the timeline phase, people will continue to remember or identify timeline worthy events in the next phase of the postmortem.
  2. Phase 2 of the postmortem consists of issue identification.  The process facilitator walks through the timeline and works with the team to identify issues.  Was it OK that the first monitor identified customer failures at 8 AM but that no one responded until noon?  Why didn’t the auto-failover of the database occur as expected?  Why did we believe that dropping the user_authorization table would allow the application to start running again?  Each and every issue is identified from the timeline, but no corrections or actions are allowed to be made until the team is done identifying issues.  Invariably, team members will start to suggest actions but it is the responsibility of the process facilitator to focus the team on issue identification during Phase 2.
  3. Phase 3 of the postmortem focuses on actions.  Each item should have at least one action associated with it.  The process facilitator walks down the list of issues and works with the team to identify an action, an owner, an expected result and a time by which it should be completed.  Using the SMART principles, each action should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.  A single owner should be identified, even though the action may take a group or team to accomplish.

Comments RSS TrackBack 5 comments

  • VP of Operations | AKF Partners Blog

    in November 16th, 2009 @ 21:55

    […] capacity, and utilization. Incident and problem management as well as root cause analysis (postmortem) are some of the most important jobs that their team accomplishes. In order to perform this role […]

  • Top 10 Internet Startup Scalability Killers – GigaOM

    in December 20th, 2009 @ 20:51

    […] gather them into groups of causation, and treat the root cause rather than the symptoms. Perform post mortems of projects and site incidents and review them quarterly for […]

  • What Startups Can Learn from Government Mistakes | AKF Partners Blog

    in January 6th, 2010 @ 19:04

    […] and Corrective Action” or “After Action Review”) process and a recent blog post highlights a lightweight version of this process for smaller issues or smaller companies.  One method of conducting a post […]

  • Scaling Startups

    in August 6th, 2010 @ 14:43

    […] mistakes are exceedingly rare and you should have processes in place to deal with them (including a defined post-mortem process). Most of the tension in companies around mistakes is about fairly mundane issues and is relatively […]

  • Scaling Startups | Fast Company

    in August 14th, 2010 @ 03:54

    […] mistakes are exceedingly rare and you should have processes in place to deal with them (including a defined post-mortem process). Most of the tension in companies around mistakes is about fairly mundane issues and is relatively […]