Use A3 Reporting to Communicate Project Essentials

by Karen A. Brown and Nancy Lea Hyer

Do your boss’s eyes glaze over when you present a series of slides about your project plan? When you prepare a detailed project plan document, does anyone read it? For many project managers, the answer is often “yes” to the eye-glazing question and “no” to the reading question. A recent Wall Street Journal article describes one of the most frequent complaints about newly-minted MBAs: They can’t seem to get to the point. Too many words and too much jargon. The article further explains that these well-intended communicators are too eager to strut their stuff by describing all of their analyses, without pushing their actual findings to the surface.

A method developed at Toyota called A3 reporting addresses some of these communication errors. It’s an excellent tool to help anyone – new MBA or experienced manager – boil down the elements of a project onto a single, A3-sized (8.5” by 11” in the U.S. system) paper. The method mostly has been touted as a tool for lean management (for a quick summary see John Shook’s Sloan Management Review article.) We believe A3 can be a powerful tool for project management, as well. Consider the A3 shown here. This  example accompanies the teaching materials that support a case from the Thunderbird Case Series, Frumherji, Ltd., Reykjavik: The Emissions-Testing and Inspection Process. It’s a little compact on a computer screen, so imagine it displayed as intended on a larger sheet of paper.

The important things to appreciate in the Frumherji A3 are its sparse use of words and extensive use of graphics. Notice, also, that it begins on the left side with background about the situation and a concise problem statement built around location, timing, and magnitude, accompanied by clear visuals that tell the story. That’s what it’s all about. Telling a story. Information on to-date analysis, a statement of project goals, and a high-level depiction of the project plan, including supporting work breakdown structure, round out this project-oriented A3. This one-page format allows you to present – and your audience to rapidly assimilate – key information about your project. Say goodbye to glazed over eyes and unread project plan documents.

Who develops the A3? Your team! Our students begin their A3s on large, wall-mounted paper, using pencils, markers, sticky notes, tape, staplers, protractors, and scissors. In its first incarnation, the A3 is a large collage. Later, it can be converted to electronic form using spreadsheet or other software. The folks at Toyota still do them by hand, appreciating that this more tactile, person-connected approach keeps you and your team closer to the problem and its solution.

For more on A3 and its application in other contexts check this link.