Monday, November 23, 2015

Yellow Lights Really Do Mean Caution

A couple of weeks ago I was talking about Action Plans, the third of three nested elements that make up our association's Operational Plan.

I said that one of the questions I typically get asked about our Action Plans was:

Who's in charge of these action plans? What happens when they are behind schedule or not progressing at all? Who do you hold accountable?

And I started answering this question. I said:

Every Action Plan--and more precisely the Program Objective to which those Plans are attached--is assigned to what we call an individual Staff Leader. This is the person responsible for making sure the Action Plan is completed and the Program Objective is achieved. Notice that I did not say this Staff Leader is responsible for completing the Action Plan or achieving the Program Objective themselves. The reason I make that distinction is because an Action Plan almost always requires the efforts of more than one person--and sometimes entire teams. This is why we have chosen the term Staff Leader to describe their role. That individual, has to lead other staff in order to make sure the Action Plan is completed and the Program Objective is achieved.

So that's who is in charge of the Action Plans. But that was as far as I went, promising to write further about the other two parts of the question. Today, I'll focus on:

What happens when the Plan is behind schedule or not progressing at all?

We assess progress on Action Plans three times a year, just prior to each of our three annual Board meetings. I described this process in my earlier post, but I didn't go into much detail on how we make those assessments.

Partly because we want a simple but effective way to communicate progress to our Board, we have adopted a set of "traffic light" indicators for these Action Plan assessments. It works like this:

Green lights mean go. If everything is going according to plan, if all the steps of the Action Plan that we expected to have done are done, the Plan gets flagged with a green light.

Yellow lights mean caution. If things aren't going according to plan, if things are behind schedule, if we haven't accomplished all we thought we would by assessment time, the Plan gets flagged with a yellow light.

Red lights mean stop. If it's the end of the year and we have failed to complete the Action Plan, or if it's in the middle of the year and it is necessary to abandon the Plan, the Plan gets flagged with a red light.

Now, as I said, this assessment mechanism provides our Board with a quick snapshot of progress in all areas of association activity. We usually summarize all the action plans in a Powerpoint slide or two, simply with the name of the Program Objective to which they are attached, the initials of the Staff Leader that is responsible for them, and their corresponding traffic light colors. At a glance, the Board can see where things are on track, where things are behind schedule, and where things have stopped completely.

But these traffic lights are even more useful for me and my staff. Everybody likes to see green lights, especially on the Action Plans that we are serving as the Staff Leader for. We know our initials and the indicators are going to be shown to the Board, and so there is a built in incentive to advance these Action Plans as far as is expected, even if it means removing obstacles or going above and beyond. So that's good. The indicators help drive performance.

But we also have to be scrupulously honest about where things are not going according to plan. It has taken some time, but a kind of discipline has now been established around yellow lights, where I remind people that they don't mean failure. Yellow lights really do mean caution.

Caution because something is out a whack and there is still time to correct it. A yellow light means let's take a closer look at this Action Plan. Is it really within our capabilities? Do we need a new resource allocation in order to achieve it? Is there a barrier that needs to be moved out of the way? In my experience, it generally breaks down to one of these three conditions, and the addition of resource allocations and the removal of barriers are usually within our reach and just the things that are needed to get the Action Plan back on track.

And if the Action Plan isn't really within our capabilities? Well, that's usually where there's the highest potential for disagreement between the supervisor and the employee. And it's also the place where true accountability needs to come into play.

More on that in a future post.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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