Creating an action plan for your improvement project is not a guarantee of success.

I visit a number of different businesses each year and I see a number of weaknesses in how these organisations plan and implement change. This article reviews seven common tweaks that most businesses can apply to their improvement action planning activities.

Hopefully you can find some ideas in this article that you can take back to your own business and accelerate the rate of change you are experiencing.

Hold regular reviews

I find it staggering that businesses create improvement action plans and then fail to monitor their progress. Reviewing how people are getting on with the tasks on a regular basis ensures not only progress, but that the right levels of support are being distributed to those that are struggling.

I find that most people will not speak up about struggling with a task and instead keep their heads down whilst getting on with other things. We’re all busy and so this approach can often go unnoticed. You don’t have to check up every day, but even once a month can make a difference.

Bringing in the discipline of holding regular review meetings and actively managing the improvement actions can affect other areas of your business too. One good discipline can certainly spur on other good disciplines. Even if it is difficult to meet, due to other commitments, ensure that you have a short meeting (but make sure you keep the reviews going).

If you find that your improvement action plans aren’t progressing as well as you would hope then try putting regular review meetings into your calendar today.

Apply the ‘RAG’ statuses

RAG stands for ‘red, amber and green’. It is a simple colour coding approach that is a great visual management tool. If you apply it to your action plans it can help to inform your managers and team members as to the progress of project tasks and quickly help you to focus your attention on the things that need attention.

A simple RAG status is:

  • Red – the action has gone off course and cannot be rectified before its due date without a large amount of effort.
  • Amber – the action is starting to go off course, but can be corrected (and brought back on track) with a small amount of effort.
  • Green – on track, on budget and nothing to worry about!

When you review a project with this colour scheme the time required diminishes and you can spend more time talking about the things that need discussing and less time covering ground that doesn’t need to be covered. If it is used correctly you should be able to reduce the overall time your project plan review meetings need (which ties in nicely to the previous point).

To make this approach work most effectively make sure that the team members responsible for updating the action plans understand how to apply the colour code and that they update the plans ahead of your review meetings.

Ensure clarity of actions

I see many plans that have actions that the people reviewing can’t understand or remember. It is imperative that what we record as actions can stand on their own at a later date.

Examples of poor actions are those that are missing their context, or refer to an earlier action that has been completed since it was written. I’m sure that you can recognise these from past action plans you have seen.

I really urge the person you have adding actions to your action plan to invest the additional couple of seconds it takes to capture the actions fully so that they can stand on their own. When you come to review the plan you’ll be thanking them rather than losing your cool and scratching your head.

Actions that can’t be understood rarely get implemented…

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Single responsibility

Many times I will see an action plan that details more than one name against an action. This might seem very comforting to the people involved, but often doesn’t end in the right results being achieved unless you have some strong characters.

What I tend to find is that neither person (let’s say that there are two people assigned the task) initiates the action. This happens in more areas than just improvement action plans; only one person should be responsible.

This isn’t to say that the person listed has to do all the work contained in the action, just that they are responsible for organising the action (and possibly delegating elements of the work). This is about responsibility and to make everyone’s life simpler there should only be one name on your action plan.

If you need to have an additional column to include the other people involved then do so, but don’t dilute the responsibility!

Realistic deadlines

We all have competing demands on our time and over enthusiastic plans with deadlines that are difficult / impossible to achieve do not help to motivate your team. Trying your best to take into account the other activities that are taking place in the business and the available time your staff have to work on improvements will make this a more effective process.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I still see quite a number of plans that don’t have deadlines. Every action needs to have a deadline, so make sure that your plan isn’t one of these latter types.

Realistic deadlines should allow your team to experience regular and consistent wins. This cadence of success can help to build momentum and carry your team through to completion of the project. If necessary, split your actions down to make sure the pace of task close down is appropriate.

Visible action plans

The next improvement you can make to your action plans is to keep them visible. There is a real shift to moving action plans onto cloud based / PC systems and these options do often some real benefits. One of the drawbacks when it comes to improvement plans is maintaining the visibility of the plans for the wider team.

A simple solution to this is to use a wall in your office to host your improvement plans. Ideally the location of your plans will be adjacent the location where you have your regular team meetings. What I want you to achieve is a state where your team are regularly looking at the action plans. If they look at the plans on a regular basis there is a good chance they will start thinking about the plans and then start working on the actions.

Keeping your action plans hidden away is not a good strategy and talking about them and looking at them is. Period.

Using tiny actions

Procrastination can kick in with all of us from time to time. One way to ensure that procrastination disables the progress you want with your improvement action plans is to have really big tasks that no one has the appetite to even start (on top of their already crushing workload).

So, if you want to experience the alternative (constant progress towards the finish line) then you will need to ensure that you don’t have tasks that cripple the minds of your team. Using tiny steps, especially at the start of an action plan, can help to build confidence and momentum with your staff.

Small wins at the outset can really help to cement your action plan as being a game that you can win at. This can make a huge difference to the rate of success that you experience as a business. If in doubt, make your tasks smaller until you gain traction and then manage the size of the tasks as appropriate thereafter.

I hope that you have found these seven improvements to be useful and that you can take a number of these points away with you. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a good idea not getting implemented.

There are enough obstacles in our business to stop improvement happening but let’s make sure that our action plan isn’t one of those items!


Giles Johnston

Giles Johnston is a Chartered Engineer who consults with businesses to improve their productivity and on time delivery performance. Giles is also the author of What Does Good Look Like? and the co-creator of the StreamLiner business improvement software program.