The Secret to Execution

The Secret to Execution: Action Plans

Doing Makes the Difference

Five toads are sitting on a log in the creek. One decides to jump.  Now, how many frogs are on the log? Still five. Deciding to isn’t the same as doing.

This phenomenon also happens in organizations.  Leaders are often plagued by good intentions but lack the ability to achieve key objectives.  Other organizations achieve high performance across a variety of measures. What accounts for the difference?

Action Planning

The key difference we’ve found is the specificity of action planning.  A well-developed action plan is the first step toward reaching your strategic objectives. The importance of this is underscored in the Baldrige Excellence Framework, where “action plans” are cited in 23 distinct areas of the criteria, are the focus of Item 2.2, and account for the first entry in the Glossary of Key Terms.

However, for such an important consideration in achieving high performance, we find very little in the literature to support this.  I recently skimmed about three dozen business books, many of which were bestsellers, and found only two citations of “action plans” and no examples of what an action plan should look like.  There appears to be an assumption that developing action plans is intuitive to leaders, but we think the evidence points to the opposite.  Even in our MBA programs, neither of us received education on developing action plans, and most of our related textbooks were similarly silent on the topic.

Key Elements for an Effective Action Plan

The first part should be a description of the action that needs to be taken. This means that it starts with an action verb such as increase, reduce, eliminate, or improve and connects that action with “from what to what.”  In other words, an action plan defines the current performance and identifies the targeted outcome.  Another important element is this action’s relationship to a strategic objective.  Some organizations call their strategic objectives, “Big Dot Goals,” and they are limited in number to “key” (or five or fewer as defined by the Baldrige Glossary).  To promote alignment and focus, all action plans should have a clear connection to a higher-level objective.

Other components include:

Senior Leader Champion – someone who has the authority and the ability to remove barriers, to settle unresolved issues, and approve actions recommended by the team

Team Leader – the person who will convene team meetings with a standard agenda, distribute minutes, and track the team’s progress

Team Members – others involved in the underlying process that is the focus of the action plan

Stakeholders – others who may be impacted by changes to the process or those with additional information to contribute

Priority – high, medium, and low.  Unless resources are plentiful, only action plans that are at least medium priority should be undertaken.

Resources – this may include a budget, staff in addition to team members, other systems and data sources

After the above fields in an action plan template have been completed, the following are additional fields that are critical to developing an effective action plan:

An opportunity statement – this describes what accomplishing the action plan will contribute to the organization. For example, it might be how the reduction of certain issues is likely to improve customer satisfaction.

Action plan objectives – the specific measures that will be impacted.  What needle(s) is the team trying to move?

Success measures and timeline – these will hopefully include both leading and lagging indicators.  The lagging indicator is the outcome measure that is the focus of the action plan.  However, leading indicators can provide early notice that the action plan is on track to move the needle of the outcome measure.

Project scope – what is “in scope” for the team to consider, and what is “out of scope?”  Something that is out of scope is “off limits” for the team to consider.  For example, if a major system upgrade is planned, incremental changes to the system may be considered out of scope.

Five Action Plan Phases

Dividing action plans into phases is also useful in preventing procrastination or even scope creep.  These are:

1. Initiation – action plan developed and approved

2. Planning – team is formed and tasks are identified

3. Implementation – tasks are conducted and completed

4.Monitoring – progress and success measure(s) of performance are reviewed

5. Closing – action plan is completed and team is disbanded

Each of these phases should have an identified start date and anticipated end date, with an actual end date recorded.

How Effective Are Your Action Plans?

If you use the above information like a checklist, how would your action plans stack up?  Are you on track to achieve your strategic objectives?  If not, what do you need to address in your action plan?  Is it of sufficient priority to warrant the resources being spent?  And what is your involvement in tracking the team’s progress?  A strong champion doesn’t dictate the solutions but does ensure a sense of urgency and commitment to execution.  And with aligned and focused action plans, execution leads to higher performance and excellence.


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Practical Steps for Addressing Key Processes and Systems
in the Baldrige Excellence Framework
June 22, 2023
 1:00PM (ET); 12:00PM (CT); 11:00AM (MT); 10:00AM (PT)
The Baldrige Excellence Framework includes key processes and systems that are essential for high-performing organizations.  However, many leaders overcomplicate their design, management, and improvement.  Could you be one of them?  This webinar will provide practical advice with proven tools to help you implement proactive process management.
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