Young woman with menu sitting in restaurant, closeup
ATD Blog

Performance Planning: A Recipe for Success

Thursday, September 28, 2023

People tend to fear or avoid performance management as it can seem overwhelming and ambiguous. Let’s simplify performance management by breaking down each component of a performance plan individually, like a chef creating a menu for a restaurant.

The Performance Plan Is Our Menu

Using the menu analogy, we’ll define the three terms you need to understand when thinking about your performance plan—(1) performance element, (2) performance standard, and (3) performance level. We’ll use the terms in the Code of Federal Requirements ( Title 5 Chapter I Subchapter B Part 430 Subpart B 430.206), but note that your policy might use different terminology.

The Performance Elements As the Menu Categories

In this analogy, the element is a food category on a menu (for example, appetizers, entrées, desserts). Just as most menus have three to five categories, performance plans typically have three to five elements. A performance element is a component of a position, such as a duty or responsibility, the performance of which contributes meaningfully to success or failure in the position. Elements inform the employee of the primary areas of focus for their position.

The Performance Standards As the Menu Items

Within a menu’s entrée category, let’s say they offer a chicken, steak, fish, and vegetarian option. Those are akin to the performance standards found under an element. A performance standard is a statement of the goals, expectations, or outcomes to achieve within an element at a particular rating level, including measures of quality, quantity, timeliness, cost-effectiveness, or manner of performance. More simply put, the standards inform employees of what they must achieve or accomplish to succeed in their position.


A staple of a good menu is one that lists ingredients or other detailed information to add clarity for a diner, such as how the ingredients will be prepared. Similarly, a good performance standard should be detailed enough so that employees know what they are expected to achieve. This also relates to the importance of feedback and two-way communication. If a menu at a restaurant lacked clarity, you’d probably ask your server for more information before ordering. Additionally, you may ask about removing an ingredient or requesting a substitution. This is akin to an employee working with their supervisor when finalizing their performance standards.

The Performance Levels As Optional Side Dishes

Imagine a fast causal restaurant you frequent during the work week to grab a quick lunch. You can rely upon it to provide a consistent soup, salad, or sandwich to satisfy your hunger and give you exactly what you expect. These restaurants define their performance at the “fully successful” performance level. A performance level is what the employee must do to demonstrate performance for a given performance rating. All agencies must write performance standards to level three (fully successfully) at minimum. The level describes exactly how much, by when, how well, and-the-like an employee must perform to succeed.

Now, imagine going to a fancy restaurant for a special occasion. You expect this restaurant to break the mold of typical offerings and use creativity and exemplary skill to deliver something that exceeds your expectations. This is similar to agencies with rating patterns that allow for a higher rating of level four (exceeds expectations) or level five (outstanding).


Because Subpart B 430 of 5CFR doesn’t require those additional levels, a standard performance plan is not required to define performance standards at levels higher than “fully successful” or equivalent. However, it is best practice to define all available performance levels so that employees have clear performance expectations and know how to add value. Think of this practice of defining performance above the “fully successful” performance level as the optional side dishes section of a menu.

Consider the “salad” category here, specifically a house salad with carrots, onions, and tomatoes. That salad, as-is, defines the level three of your performance standard. If there were an option to add chicken or shrimp at additional cost, that would be like defining the level four. Offering filet mignon or salmon at an even higher cost could define the level five. None of those add-ons are required for a successful meal but indicate a more robust product.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

There are many different jobs with employees doing all types of work, which means the typical number of performance elements and standards on a plan mentioned above is just that—typical. For instance, imagine a speechwriter who says all they do is write speeches. They would have only one performance element. This would be like creating the menu of a restaurant that serves only ice cream (for example, one category [element] but with multiple flavors [standards]).

Now, imagine organizations with entire teams of individuals doing the same type of work and having a single performance plan standardized across the work unit. This would be like a prix fixe menu at a restaurant, which has one set of offerings for everyone with no variability. This works well if you are catering to one specific audience.

However, you rarely find a one-size-fits-all restaurant with a single menu that works best for everyone. The menu must work for the audience the restaurant is trying to attract or the food they are trying to represent. The same goes for performance management. So just like a chef tasked with first curating their menu before cooking, we must start with performance planning before working. Once you’re confident you’ve captured the right elements and standards, you’ll have a recipe for success!

About the Author

Amanda Custer joined the US Office of Personnel Management as a human resources consultant in October, 2009. She is a founding member of the HR Strategy and Performance Management Section, providing consulting services to federal agencies on performance management on a reimbursable basis. Amanda has worked on and led projects for a variety of federal agencies including creating performance management programs and systems for executives, evaluating and drafting performance plans, and developing and conducting training.

Since 2009, she also has been a guest instructor at the Eastern Management Development Center contributing to the Supervisory Development Seminar coaching how to write effective and compliant performance plans.

Amanda graduated with her MS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and her BS in Psychology from Missouri State University.

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Love the analogy of a food menu. That completely resonates... It is also not necessarily creating new dishes but creating variations of the existing dishes by changing the ingredients that can make a process novel, attractive and functional
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This is awesome - I hadn't previously thought about it this way, but it's genius! I'm hoping to see more creative and helpful collaborative content like this from ATD and OPM. =)
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Understanding performance management is crucial, much like crafting a menu. Comparing it to such is novel and an interesting take on it! For what it's worth, here at Confirm we use Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), which can enhance this process by pinpointing outstanding contributors, ensuring clarity and fair assessments. Like tailoring a menu to diverse personalized performance plans, aided by ONA, create a recipe for success in any organization.
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