How to communicate status with colour (RAG report)

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Jul 10th, 2012

When we need to communicate the status of something easily or urgently, especially when there is risk involved, then a simple colour-coded system based on traffic lights is often used … known as traffic-light or RAG rating. These RAG ratings communicate the health (performance, progress, risk, or overall status) of something. The name (RAG) derives from the colours of a traffic light–Red, Amber, and Green–with their associated concepts of Stop, Caution, and Go. waitrose-nutrition-labellingThis colour-coding approach is used in many fields, from the obvious road intersections, through airport departure boards, terrorist threat levels, factory production lines, hospital occupancy, even the healthiness of prepackaged food, to the state of our project, process, or deliverables.

Communicating status with colour

In terms of projects, the story that RAG ratings seek to communicate is typically:

  •  Red : We are not coping: there is a problem or issue that we cannot resolve; so we need intervention — e.g., a deliverable will not be or has not been achieved within its baseline delivery date and there is no contingency plan.
  •  Amber : We are coping: there is a problem, or a risk of one, that we believe we can resolve; so we don’t need any intervention (yet) — e.g., a deliverable has been started and is at risk of not being completed within the baseline delivery date, but there is a contingency plan; this would include anything past its baseline delivery date and for which a new target date has been agreed.
  •  Green : All is well: nothing to see here, please move along — e.g., a deliverable has been started and is achievable within the baseline delivery date and costs.

While the cut-over between these states will vary from organisation to organisation, or even project to project, these three colours are typically sufficient to let key stakeholders know the health or risk levels of their projects, and importantly (when they are very busy) to highlight which items require intervention.

So three colours is all we need?

Sometimes red, amber, and green are not enough to communicate the health of everything, and these are supplemented with other colours, for example:

  •  Blank : (i.e., same colour as surrounding area) a deliverable has not yet started and is achievable within the baseline delivery date.
  •  Blue : a deliverable is done, completed, and handed over to another another responsibility.
  •  Black : a deliverable has been cancelled or abandoned as no longer possible, even though it is still required.
  •  Grey : a deliverable has been agreed as no longer required (i.e. cut from scope)

Using this on a status report

So, having established a range of colours, how do we use that on our status reports? Whether it’s in a document, spreadsheet, or slide deck, we typically arrange our deliverables or tasks in a table, with key information (like when we had agreed to complete them, the percentage completed) and the RAG status to indicate whether it is still achievable. However, as this shows just a single colour, this misses a vital ingredient for those with colour-blindness (1 in 10 men and 1 in 200 women) — i.e. on a traffic light, when they see the top or bottom light lit, they know it’s red or green because of its position too. To overcome this, we normally supplement the colour with some brief text; some people use the full word or initial letter of the colour itself — R, A, or G — however it is more useful to say something about the status. Airport departures board tell you ‘go to gate’, ‘boarding’, ‘delayed’, or ‘departed’ — so similarly we can say ‘on track’, ‘at risk’, ‘delayed’, or ‘complete’. davidjcmorris-techniques-ragstatus

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This blog is an exploration of tools, techniques, and insights that reflect my journey as I strive to be the best I can be. I am still learning and exploring, and I invite your feedback and discussion so that we can learn from one another.

3 Comments

  • Very interesting indeed, David. I should try and implement this for the next project.

    For the text I was thinking we could also auto-fill the text based on color; from what I remember we could do that. Right?

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and thoughts!

    • David Morris

      24 Jul 2012

      Hi Yamo, Thanks for the comment. In Excel, it's easier to use conditional formatting to set a background colour based on the cells content (i.e. the words), and you can set a validation rule on the cells so that you can only use certain values. Those two steps together make it easy to set the RAG colour, just by selecting a status from a drop-down list (no typing required).

  • […] tasks are going to run over a number of days, give each a red, amber or green rating (known as a RAG report). Be honest with yourself, if you’re on target mark it green, if there’s a slight risk […]

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