Tips for Effective Action Management

We've all had actions - whether as an output from a meeting, a random conversation or email, or simply an idea that we've come up with which we park in the ' must get round to' section. Which is fine if you deal with actions like 'get the milk', but if you're reading this I am assuming you have some slightly more important issues to deal with.

At Pisys we've spent an awful lot of time since around 2001 talking to our customers about how they manage actions, and to be honest, there are a few recurring themes.. whatever industry you're in it's likely that some of the things we discuss here will resonate with you. We've called it 'Tips for Effective Action Management' simply because there are many ways to manage actions and we've come across some common themes over the years.

This post is the heavily distilled result of thousands of conversations with engineers, programmers, auditors, project managers and frustrated action owners of all shapes and sizes all over the world - feel free to comment, borrow or ignore any or all of it, but I'd be surprised if you don't see a few things that you agree with.

Give Us Verbs

Verb: a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of a sentence, such as hear, become, happen.

Let’s start by looking at what an action is and isn’t ..

When is an action not an action?

Having studied many thousands of actions over the years it is surprising and slightly scary to realise that many people think you can describe an action without verbs.
I've thought about this a lot and I am pretty sure that the clue is in the name 'Action' - and since verbs are generally what you use to describe 'doing' I can't see how you can describe an action without at least one ‘doing word’.

Tip #1 Actions should include Verbs

Often at Pisys we see 'observations' being recorded as actions – e.g. ‘The ladder was left in a dangerous position’ rather than ‘Place ladder in safe position’ - certainly there are probably actions which should be taken as a result of these observations but the ideal action should clearly describe what has to be done, in an unambiguous way.

Another regular 'observation' is treating multiple actions as a single action : e.g.
Collate documents for project 'X'
Check documents for ISO 27001 compliance

2 separate processes, potentially involving different people, but you get my point?
We’ve seen whole lists of tasks summarised as a single action – with a single due-by date.

Tip #2 - Keep it simple - one action per action !

It’s worth noting that the principles we describe here apply to all kinds of actions, whether they’re from audits, meetings, HAZOPS, FEEDS … they’ll all benefit from the application of a few simple rules.

It's About Time

When we give someone a task /action to perform we can leave it open ended. My wife gave me an action once (1993 I think), something to do with a mirror. I know I'm never going to do it unless I put a deadline in place, humans (most of them at least) function better when they have a deadline.

Actions need due dates - and if we have due dates then we need to be able to see when actions are overdue. That's the minimum - it would also probably be useful if people could get reminded as they approach these deadlines, and then maybe their boss could get a note when the due date passes – this is cruel and unusual punishment but it does help things along.

Tip #3 - Don't leave an open ended completion date

At Pisys we use our own Action Tracker to manage actions across our business - key people get notified when their action due date approaches and this has proved very useful when preparing for audits etc.

Prove It !

We once walked into a client meeting with a large international company who had just been audited by a government agency. The auditor had quite sensibly asked to see some evidence of completing the 425 safety critical actions which had been generated on one of their facilities.

You can probably tell where this is going - they couldn't produce any evidence that they had completed any of the tasks in the actions, and as a result had to suspend production.
Of course not every action is safety critical, but if it's important enough to record then I would propose that we need some way of confirming that the work has been done, and also to be able to simply 'take a look' at the status of an action.

Complex or important actions may need to be signed off by multiple people with a mechanism for rejecting or approving the work done (with suitable comment to inform any required corrective action), and this is where sticky notes and spreadsheets really struggle. Even pretty straightforward actions can generate a fair bit of data, and it's often handy to have somewhere to attach documents or images if these form part of the action or proof of action completion.

Tip #4 – Manage your actions centrally - otherwise why bother

Record it!

And I'm not talking about sticky notes - if actions are important they should be recorded in a sensible and robust way.

We've seen all sorts of 'action recording' techniques - Word documents, emails, spreadsheets - and yes sticky notes - in many cases being used to manage pretty important actions, but let’s first discuss where we’re going to put them (apart from sticky notes, we all know where they go)

If you are dealing with more than one person you probably need some kind of central storage for your actions.

Internal file servers are ok - but difficult to manage if you are dealing with subcontractors/partners who have no easy access to your network. Google docs and similar shared storage systems are also possible as long as you are happy with the availability, security and any legislation around where your sensitive data is stored.
The people who need to access the action should be able to do so, but you may also have actions that are restricted to a group - a project team for example.

I don't have a problem with spreadsheets as a concept but I think you need to carefully consider the downside when you're trying to record and manage actions - here's one big problem

Spreadsheet fail #1 - It's difficult to stop people seeing your stuff

If you can open a spreadsheet you can usually see all of it – which is inconvenient if there are bits you’d rather keep private, like specific actions.
You can deal with this to an extent by a bit of clever macro programming but to be honest it all gets a bit complicated, we’ve seen big businesses held together by crazy complex spreadsheets and it’s fine until the spreadsheet guy leaves.

Go Forth and Close Actions

People close actions - systems support the people. A good action management system should stay out of the way as much as possible - we've never met anyone whose day job was 'action closer' - you've all got other stuff to do.

Keys to a good user experience are:

Users see only what they need to see
All the information needed is readily available – this might include documents or drawings as well as the key detail of the action.
Collaboration is easy – a workflow should allow actions to be signed off
Changes are instantly visible
All changes made are easily auditable
That last one is critical - having a good audit trail is good practice, but it's also implicit in just about every piece of legislation governing how organizations operate.

There’s a lot of other stuff we could have covered here – reporting is always a major requirement and we just don’t have the space to list all the ways that spreadsheets aren’t very good at that.
Customisation is often a dirty word – organisations have different ways of defining their actions and workflows and ideally any system you use should be capable of being tailored by you, out of the box, without having to reopen negotiations with an expensive software vendor every time you need a change.

I hope you enjoyed this 'fly by' - If you're interested in finding out more about what Pisys could do to help you manage actions more effectively we'd be happy to show you our rather lovely Action Tracker which has been used for High Governance action tracking since the turn of the century !

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