The Background of the A3 Report

The need for clear, concise communication should not be an epiphany for anyone with project experience; however, there are a vast number of tools available that you may not have previously considered.

One of the best for focusing problem solving efforts and communicating the findings to upper management is the A3 Report. Deriving its name from the International Standard for Organization's A3 paper size, it strives to fit all aspects of a problem and its proposed solution onto an 11" x 17" piece of paper. The origins of the report format lie within the lean movement and, like many lean initiatives, Toyota was a major early adopter.

One of the great challenges of tactical project management is keeping upper management aware of why your project exists and thus keeping them interested in its continued existence. In addition to being a great tool for keeping a project team focused on the basic theme and intent of a project, the A3 report has few equals when it comes reminding a CIO of your project's importance during the few minutes of their bandwidth that might be focused on your effort per month.

Furthermore, one of the key cornerstones of project initiating is a sound definition of the problem that will be solved. The A3 Report is a powerful tool to do just that.

Basic Formatting

There isn't a super detailed A3 Report format etched in stone in a far off vault of project management paradigms that must be adhered to else the Project Management Institute's top secret SWAT team will swoop in and raid your work space. In fact, a Google search for 'A3 Report' will quickly reveal a dozen examples that can easily be adapted to your specific needs. Even the A3 paper size isn't essential. Letter size will do just as well and will force even greater conciseness which is the entire purpose of the exercise.

A survey of the Google examples as well as written material available on the subject does reveal a basic outline worth considering:

1. Define the problem and current state

  • As with every piece of the A3 Report, this needs to be done in the clearest possible terms.
  • Many use the title 'Theme' for this section. A voice of the customer/use case subsection may also be helpful to paint the picture.
  • Simple bullet points are very useful here such as:
    • Our iPhone app is experiencing too many defects in production
    • This has not improved over the last three releases
    • Development hours spent on maintenance and rework are having an impact on our yearly IT budget and diminishing our ability to develop new features
  • Don't be afraid to get graphical here or in any other A3 report section. A large number of 2"x2" charts and graphs can be included. These are key for the glance that a 'C level' exec might take at your report, and, as we all have been hearing since elementary school, a picture speaks a thousand words.

2. Analyze the Problem

  • The key to this section is getting to the root cause.
  • Some examples using the iPhone app instance from above:
    • Our test environments are not accurately representing the production environment
    • Sufficient cross planning is not conducted to foresee all of the ways that other development work will impact our app
  • A Pareto Chart or Ishikawa Diagram would be a perfect lean tool to insert here.

3. Define Action Plan

  • This is typically an extremely high level synopsis of your project plan.
  • A simple Gantt Chart or very high level work breakdown structure can easily be inserted showing basic resourcing and time estimates.
  • Quantifiable goals should be listed such as reducing production app defects by 50%.
  • High level budget estimates can also be included and can be compared to the cost savings that are expected from the project if this data is available and relevant.

Taking A3 Reports Further

The three above sections should be enough for a project that is being proposed or that is in the initiation phase, but some like to take the A3 concept further and use it as a basic tracking mechanism or as a project closing document.

A results section can be easily added detailing operational changes that have come as a result of the project. An obvious goal here would be to compare post project data with the data used to define the problem in order to show that improvement has been made or that additional steps need to be taken. Along the same lines, another section can also be included listing future ideas and steps to be considered down the road. Items here could be ideas that were uncovered during the course of the project or things that were originally project deliverables that had to be removed from scope.

Lean encompasses a vast body of knowledge and is thick with obscure Japanese words and advanced statistical concepts, but at its core, it is really just a frame of mind and even a way of life to improve processes and reduce waste. From an IT perspective, a key example of this is consolidating information into forms that are useful for team leadership and that facilitate business decisions. The A3 Report is a valuable tool to bring a little bit more of that into your project communication plan.