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A Guide To Successful Employee Survey Research, Part 7

Action Planning Best Practices

action planning prioritiesSuccessful action planning in response to employee survey findings requires a thoughtful, structured and well-documented approach to ensure not only that formal plans are created but they are put into place and lead to the type of workplace improvements intended. This type of planning must start at the top of the organization, where the priorities for the organization are identified, communicated and acted upon at the senior management level. If those in charge are not held accountable for taking action in response to employee feedback, how can any other member of the workforce be responsible instead?

After starting at the top, the responsibility for action planning can then flow down to divisional, departmental and unit levels of the organization, with local teams given the information and support they need to identify and tackle the factors that they have direct control over while escalating everything else back upward to senior management.

Before proceeding with action planning, it is vital to ensure that:
  • All of those responsible for creating plans - whether in teams or on task forces - have had time to see and digest the results and to ask questions and get clarification when necessary,

  • The results have been discussed fully by each planning team or task force, with their priorities identified together with the most likely root causes,

  • Those priorities have been classified, even if somewhat "loosely" at first, into short-term "quick wins," medium-term factors and longer-term issues, so their respective timelines are clearly recognized,

  • There is clarity about what is being tackled at the higher levels and among other teams or task forces to avoid any duplication of effort among the more tactical teams, and

  • All members of each planning team or task force understand their mandate and responsibilities, are committed to moving forward and know that they will be held accountable for the outcomes of their planning efforts.

For planning purposes, the best approach is to limit each wave of action planning to 3 or 4 top priorities, since it's better to focus on a smaller number of issues and handle them well than to tackle a wide range of problems and handle them poorly. Further actions should not be pursued until at least one of the existing priorities has been fully completed. This is not to say, though, that different teams/task forces can't manage different priorities.

The topics to be addressed need to be compatible with the decision-making authority of each respective planning team. For example, only senior management can effect change relating to the mission, vision or values of the organization, implement strategies to revise or renew the "culture" of the organization, establish or update organization-wide policies/procedures and manage issues relating to compensation.

More tactical cross-functional teams, on the other hand, can easily handle such topics as setting guidelines for improving day-to-day communications, reviewing and updating job descriptions, identifying training and cross-training opportunities, planning team-building activities and finding ways for the organization to be more responsive to employee ideas and suggestions.

Prioritizing Improvement Actions

Prioritization of improvement actions based on your employee survey is another vital component of effective action planning. Some organizations struggle with making improvements because they try to tackle far too many initiatives at once and start spreading the valuable resources they have too thinly over too many actions.

There is a simple model that can be used to prioritize opportunities for improvement:

employee survey action plan

Improvement actions could be plotted on this quadrant map plot and, ideally, you should start with the issues and actions that are important to address but are the least resource intensive (i.e. those in the top left hand quadrant). An example of this type of action could be improving communication by reviewing and changing the structure and content of monthly team meetings. These types of actions should be combined with some of the "Quick Win" actions. These would fall under the "Minimal Returns on Minimal Effort" category.

The four key questions to answer when trying to set your priorities are:

  1. How important is this issue to your employees?
  2. Is it something you have direct control over?
  3. Are the benefits of improving the situation worth the effort?
  4. Will achievement in this lead to a marked improvement in business performance and/or customer satisfaction?

This model that can be used in conjunction with the action planning process by simply reviewing proposed actions against each of the above questions. The fourth question, relating to customer satisfaction and business performance, is especially important because it correlates exactly with what your employee survey effort should achieve. In other words, using this goal as a key determinant of action reinforces the commercial and business imperatives of your employee survey.

Formalizing the Employee Survey Action Plan

Once you have identified the key improvement areas and then prioritized each of them, the next step is to decide how to deliver on each of them. To achieve this goal, it is vitally important that your Action Plan be fully documented and summarized so that all stakeholders are aware of the content and timeframe of the plan. The formal and documented plan can then be used to review progress as actions are undertaken. In other words, you should look on employee survey action planning as a "circular" process of setting targets, reviewing each target in terms of both time and progress and making adjustments and refinements as needed until an action item has been fully implemented.

The specific components of the plan should be as follows:

Area for improvement: What is the problem? What impact is it having on employees and customers? What is causing this problem?

What Needs to Happen: Specify the specific improvement action that is required to address the problem.

How It Will Happen: Specify the process and activities required as part of the improvement action.

Timelines: Set a target date for completing this element of the plan. Ensure that target delivery date are realistic and achievable - but not overly generous - recognize that it may be stretched if circumstances prevent it being met. Each action planning goal may have a different timeline in terms of how quickly progress may be visible or the goal is fully accomplished. Choose a timeline that allows the action planning teams to see if the changes are “on course,” enables them to report and celebrate progress (even if they have a long way left to go) and does not over-tax the team’s ability to collect and utilize data (or even the tolerance of those providing the data).employee action planning timeline steps tasks

Action Owner: In our experience, although action planning works well with a team approach, it is just as important for each action items to have a designated "owner." These "owners" do not have to be solely accountable for the delivery of the action, but they are responsible for ensuring that fulfillment of the action item actually happens. Ownership for actions should be spread around the team or task force so that no one person is overburdened.

Resources: Specify and determine what individual resources are required for each action item such as personnel, money, materials or support from other parts of the organization. Ensure that those resources are made available as needed.

Improvement Targets: Another action planning imperative is to set realistic improvement targets to assess whether the improvement actions are having the desired effect. Your employee survey can be used as one source for this evaluation by establishing targets for improvement on specific questions in your next survey. Also, keep in mind that survey data is not likely to be your only data source for target setting, so look to using other organizational data metrics, such as employee turnover rates and customer satisfaction data. Different goals may require the input of different groups of employees or even others outside the organization, including customers/clients and vendors.

Method of Measurement: Setting targets for improvement will have little impact if they are not documented. Create a detailed list that clearly lays out the current measure, the minimum anticipated improvement and the data sources for this measure.

Progress Review Dates: Creating a timeline for each action step also means that you need to monitor when these actions are actually occurring. Specify all of the dates when at least some part of the action plan will be reviewed to see which action items are "on track" and which have not met their targets. The frequency of this type of review is largely determined by the target dates specified for improvements, although we recommend that they take place at least quarterly (maybe as part of a regular team or task force meeting). These progress reviews are intended to be a learning experience rather than a forum for repeating mistakes. In this context, "progress" means recording whether some action has been taken or if the item has not been started at all. Similarly, in addition to sharing and celebrating successes, it's vital to review the parts of the plan that are not working and determine what needs to be changed. The final portion of each progress review should be used to re-confirm targets and timelines and check that all members of the team are happy with the progress that is being made.

Making Plan Adjustments: Regular review of your action plan is critical because it helps to maintain the momentum that has been created, lets the planning team track their achievements and opens an opportunity to identify any barriers to implementing the plan. If any actions have not progressed as intended or as fast as they should, take the time to understand the reason for this. Rather than unnecessarily attributing blame to individuals, identify the corrective action required to bring things back on track. If an improvement action is not producing the desired results and an alternative action route cannot be identified, sometimes it's best move on and tackle something else after documenting the reasons for doing so. If some actions are experiencing delays, adjust the timeline but be careful not to extend key priorities out beyond a reasonable timeframe. If many action items appear to be "in limbo," you're at risk of derailing the entire action planning process, in which case the planning team should diagnose and fix the barriers that are preventing progress.

Completing Action Items: Once an action item has been fulfilled, it's safe to mark this action as complete. Note that success on this item, though, won't be known until you've assessed its impact (which is the final step). Once an improvement action has been completed, the planning team or task force may be given the opportunity to choose a new action area to focus on.

Measuring Impact: The final step in the plan is to measure each action item's success against the improvement targets set earlier in the process. It's really important to define the impact and difference that the improvement action has made to employees, customers and the business overall, since this is really the only way to see if positive change is occurring at your organization. If an action item falls short of its targets, don't get discouraged but, rather, look for insight as to why - such as setting targets that are too ambitious or looking for improvement too early - so that you can build this learning into future action planning.

Communicating Outcomes and Achievements

celebrate employee engagament success

Celebrate Milestones and Successes
As changes begin to be implemented, don't keep your employees in the dark and expect that they will automatically be receptive to all changes and will attribute them to the employee survey findings. As action plans are rolled out and changes are introduced, your employees need to know:
  1. Exactly what they are being asked to do, or do differently,

  2. The rationale for the changes,

  3. (If appropriate) what new policies, procedures, equipment they are being asked to follow, understand or use,

  4. What training or resources will be provided to help them make the change,

  5. What sort of timeline is expected for each change, and

  6. How the effectiveness of each change will be measured.

For any type of organizational change, but especially for big/long term initiatives, reviewing progress on action planning should never be limited to the planning teams or task forces alone. Since you want employees to both recognize and be open to the changes being made, share the planning outcomes along the way to help keep the changes on course, enthusiasm high, and key audiences informed. It's equally important to celebrate all achievements - successful change that leads to a happier workplace is a cause for celebration of the achievement and recognition of those who made it happen!

Summing Up

Our objective in preparing this Guide to Successful Employee Survey Research is to give HR professionals a thorough introduction to employee surveys, including examining the main reasons for conducting these surveys, the primary considerations for choosing what type of survey to run, how to tell employees about the survey in order to maximize employee participation and then what steps to take once your have your survey findings.

Throughout the Guide, we've shared our own experiences conducting employee surveys for more than 10 years and for more than 200 different organizations. This background has shaped the way we approach employee surveys, including the 4Cs (Commitment, Culture, Communications, Compensation) model around which most of our surveyed are designed and which we use as the basis for collecting rigorous normative data in the U.S. and Canada every year.

Our many clients - large and small, domestic and international and from almost every industry - have also given us insight into a number of issues specific to particular employee-employer relationships and situations. While these cases are too numerous and varied to include in this Guide, we here at Insightlink always stand ready to discuss your unique information needs and to bring our experience to bear on meeting your information objectives. Whether you need an "all hands" survey of employee satisfaction and engagement, a "pulse" survey about a narrow, time-bound topic or an online system to administer onboarding surveys or exit interviews, we are always happy to speak to you and to help you find the right tools to get you the right information to make the right decisions.

If you are interested in learning more about our services, please don't hesitate to call Lynn Gore at 866-802-8095 ext. 705 or email us at We'll be glad to discuss your specific survey needs and design a project to meet those needs.

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