Background: Maternal mortality in developing countries is high and international targets for reduction are unlikely to be met. Zambia’s maternal mortality ratio was 591 per 100,000 live births according to survey data (2007) while routinely collected data captured only about 10% of these deaths. In one district in Zambia medical staff reviewed deaths occurring in the labour ward but no related recommendations were documented nor was there evidence of actions taken to avert further deaths. The Investigate Maternal Deaths and Act (IMDA) approach was designed to address these deficiencies and is comprised of four components; identification of maternal deaths; investigation of factors contributing to the deaths; recommendations for action drawn up by multiple stakeholders and monitoring of progress through existing systems. Methods: A pilot was conducted in one district of Zambia. Maternal deaths occurring over a period of twelve months were identified and investigated. Data was collected through in-depth interviews with family, focus group discussions and hospital records. The information was summarized and presented at eleven data sharing meetings to key decision makers, during which recommendations for action were drawn up. An output indicator to monitor progress was included in the routine performance assessment tool. High impact interventions were identified using frequency analysis. Results: A total of 56 maternal deaths were investigated. Poor communication, existing risk factors, a lack of resources and case management issues were the broad categories under which contributing factors were assigned. Sixty three recommendations were drawn up by key decision-makers of which two thirds were implemented by the end of the pilot period. Potential high impact actions were related to management of AIDS and pregnancy, human resources, referral mechanisms, birth planning at household level and availability of safe blood. Conclusion: In resource constrained settings the IMDA approach promotes the use of existing systems to reduce maternal mortality. In turn the capacity of local health officers to use data to determine, plan and implement relevant interventions that address the local factors contributing to maternal deaths is strengthened. Monitoring actions taken against the defined recommendations within the routine performance assessment ensures sustainability. Suggestions for further research are provided.