Thursday, May 15, 2008

Action Commitments

All talk, no action?  Good ideas, but no results?  A common problem is a lack of action commitments.  If you don't break your decisions down into effective actions with owners, don't expect results.  If you have owners for actions, but you haven't equipped them for success, don't be surprised when things fall through.  Turning decisions into effective actions requires thoughtful work assignments.  In The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker's Essential Writings on Management, Peter Drucker explains how to turn decisions into actions.

Decisions are Not Effective Without Action Commitments
According to Drucker, simply making decisions doesn't help if they aren't turned into action:

Converting the decision into action is the fourth major element in the decision process.  While thinking through the boundary conditions is the most difficult step in decision-making, converting the decisions into effective action is usually the most time-consuming one.  Yet  a decision will not become effective unless the action commitments have been built into the decision from the start. 

Until There’s Work Assignments, There’s Only Good Intentions
Drucker says it's actions that count:

In fact, no decision has been made unless carrying it out in specific steps has become someone’s work assignment and responsibility.  Until then, there are only good intentions.

A Declaration of What You’re Not Going to Do
Drucker tells us why people doubt policy statements from above:

That is the trouble with so many policy statements, especially of business; they contain no action commitment.  To carry them out is no one’s specific work and responsibility.  No wonder that the people in the organization tend to view these statements cynically if not as declarations of what top management is really not going to do.

Questions To Help Convert a Decision Into Action
Drucker uses a precise set of questions to help convert decisions into actions:

  • Who has to know of this decision?
  • What action has to be taken?
  • Who is to take it?
  • And what does the action have to be so that the people who have to do it can do it?

Drucker wants us that the first and the last of these are too often overlooked – with dire results.

A story to Illustrate the Importance of Who Has to Know
Drucker tells a story that shows us why it's important that the right people know about the decisions:

A story that has become a legend among operations researchers illustrates the importance of the question, Who has to know?  A major manufacturer of industrial equipment decided several years ago to discontinue one model.  For years it had been standard equipment on a line of machine tools, many of which were still in use.  It was decided, therefore, to sell the model to present owners of the old equipment for another three years as a replacement, and then to stop making and selling it.  Orders for this particular model had been going down for a good many years.  But they shot up as former customers recorded against the day when the model would no longer be available.  No one had, however, asked, Who needs to know of this decision?  Therefore, nobody informed the clerk in the purchasing department who was in charge of buying the parts from which the model itself was being assembled.  His instructions were to buy parts in a given ratio to current sales – and the instructions remained unchained.  When the time came to discontinue further production of the model, the company had in its warehouse enough parts for another eight to ten years of production, parts that had to be written off at a considerable loss.

Key Take Aways
Here's my key take aways:

  • Turn decisions into action commitments.  Actions speak louder than words.  Knowing what to do is not the same as doing what you know.
  • Get the right owners for the actions.
  • Know what the action owners need to be successful and support them.

I see a lot of decisions that never turn into results.  I know people mean well, but making things happen takes more than just desire.  It takes action.  The challenge with turning decisions into action is understanding the work required.

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Barbara Swafford said...

Hi J.D,

Very thought provoking, truthful post. I love the story you included about excess parts that accumulated.

As much as actions do speak louder than words, words are necessary to communicate the actions.

This has been a great lesson in the importance of communication and not "blowing smoke".

J.D. Meier said...

Thanks Barbara

I'm trying to make "action commitments" a habit for results. When I go to training, I ask "what are 3 things I can apply?" and at the end of meetings I ask "Next steps?" or "action items?" It's funny how checking for actions cuts through fog or "blowing smoke."

David | beplayful said...


I love this post! It's very similar to the Massive Action concept I outline in my 'Change your life with Kaizen' post.

If ideas aren't turned into actions then they don't really count as ideas.


J.D. Meier said...

Thanks David

I'm a fan of Kaizen -- very much so.

I came across an interesting distiction between creativity and innovation -- creativity stayed in the mind or thoughts, while innovation turned into results. So I think a key for ideas and innovation really is taking action.