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Successfully Managing Major Loss Investigations is No Accident

Managing the investigation of a major loss is a task many organizations struggle with due to their complexity and relative rarity.   When the circumstances of a large loss event are complicated by serious personal injuries or fatalities, the involvement of investigators from numerous regulatory agencies or other interested parties, and scrutiny from the news media and the local community, the obstacles to a successful investigation can seem insurmountable.

However, any major accident investigation can be successfully managed to a satisfactory resolution by experienced lead investigators applying professional project management techniques.

The application of project management techniques to major accident investigations is based on the concept that all projects, including investigations, proceed through phases characterized by a distinct set of activities or tasks that take the project from start to finish.  The project life cycle is comprised of phases that tend to progress in a logical order with some phases occurring concurrently.

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

There is a popular adage often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”, that neatly summarizes why planning is so critical to managing major investigations.

This planning should begin long before a major loss occurs and continue throughout the process as the investigation proceeds.    A key aspect of pre-event planning is identifying various probable major loss scenarios and then locating lead investigators with the expertise and experience to manage these types of incidents.

When potential lead investigators have been identified, this is a great opportunity to review and evaluate their expertise and credentials and ensure that their emergency contact information is readily available.

The Five Project Management Phases for Major Loss:

  1. Initiation
  2. Planning
  3. Execution
  4. Monitoring and Control
  5. Closure


When it becomes apparent that a major loss has occurred it’s important to immediately notify and mobilize your previously identified lead investigator to the scene to help assess the situation and determine what, if any, additional experts or resources will likely be needed in order to complete an investigation.   Incident scenes and witness memories are extremely perishable and while it may not be immediately clear that a claim will be filed or that litigation will ensue, this is a situation where a small investment can pay off later when a key piece of evidence needed to prove the facts is identified and preserved.

This is not the time to turn to Google or other internet search engine of choice in desperate search of an accident investigation expert!


The planning phase of an investigation extends from the pre-planning for potential losses to planning activities that start upon notifying the project manager/lead investigator and end when the investigation is closed.  A formal investigation management plan helps to keep all parties on the same page while clearly communicating expectations and laying out a roadmap for the investigation.   While there will always be a number of unknown factors at the start of an investigation, some key aspects to be considered and continually re-evaluated include the following:

  • Will the investigation be managed as privileged work product?
  • Do any of the proposed investigators, experts, or analytical laboratories have any actual or perceived conflicts of interest?
  • Clear scoping of the investigation within the plan – avoid scope creep!
  • Identification of needed resources – Budget, Staffing, and Equipment
  • Preparation and maintenance of a schedule for the investigation
  • Evidence Collection, Management, and Retention Protocols
  • Stakeholder Management and Communication


In the execution phase, the investigation is underway and continues until project closure, adhering to the investigation plan as developed in the previous phase.  Project execution and project monitoring and control are two phases that typically occur simultaneously with revisions to the project planning as needed.

Monitoring and Control

The monitoring and control phase is primarily concerned with measuring the project performance and progression with respect to the investigation project plan.  This includes verification and control to monitor for scope creep, managing the budget and schedule, and other related project management tasks.


The closure phase can be summed up as the termination of major investigation activities.

  •  Investigation team experts and support staff are released with the caveat that they may be needed for future proceedings.
  • Secure archive and storage of investigation documents and related media.
  • Secure retained storage of critical physical evidence that may be needed for future legal proceedings.
  • This is a final opportunity to ensure that the investigators have dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” and to examine the investigation results for any gaps.

Successfully managing major investigations requires lead investigators with significant prior experience, a great deal of tact and diplomacy, endless patience, and the tenacity to go the full distance to investigation closure.

While there are many professionals who are recognized experts in their respective fields and may be valuable members of investigation teams, managing large loss investigations is a highly complex and specialized undertaking with no room for error.

Don’t just take our word for it- take Benjamin Franklin’s advice and plan for success! Visit our Major Loss Investigation and Reconstruction page.