What is an Obeya and why you should have one

10 minute reading

    What is an Obeya and why you should have one

    Key Take Aways

    • The Obeya connects information to people, and therefore people to each other.
    • The Obeya was born at Toyota out of the urgent need for intensive cooperation across many disciplines and echelons, unconditional transparency in the provision of information, and quick, clear decision-making.
    • The complete system ensures that knowledge can be shared in an effective and efficient way, that teamwork is more integrated and mistakes can be prevented, that the strategic connection is better anchored, and that decision-making can be accelerated.

    In September 1993, Toyota decided to launch the G21 project to investigate which cars will be driving on our Globe in the 21st century. What an unprecedented success it was when the team later created a prototype that was no less than 50% more efficient in fuel use than any other car at the time. However, the prototype was rejected; the efficiency had to go to 100%! Talk about audacious goals.

    A few years later, in 1995, the Toyota Hybrid System was introduced and the Prius Hybrid made its debut for the public and press as a concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show. In December 1997, people could buy the Toyota Prius at the dealer. Takeshi Uchiyamada, Chief Engineer and the father of the Prius Hybrid, accelerated the process – from concept to launch – by no less than two full years compared to other projects within the firm and left competition years behind. How did he manage that?


    The secret ingredients

    It soon became clear that this program had required an incredible effort from Toyota, both for the development process and in manufacturing. An innovation, to say the least, that would put the competition behind for years and years. But the most important innovation had nothing to do with technology.

    The Chief Engineer realized all too well that three ingredients had to be at the base, to fulfill towering expectations:

    1. intensive cooperation across many disciplines and echelons,
    2. unconditional transparency in the provision of information,
    3. and quick, clear decision-making.

    The Obeya was born and Toyota has replicated and further improved this system everywhere, up to this day. It is a crucial part of Toyota Business Practices.


    The Obeya is Central to Lean

    Obeya translates as “big room” in Japanese (大 部屋, also known as Oobeya). However, many Toyota Business Practices come together under this umbrella, such as visual management (mieruka), continuous improvement (kaizen), sharing knowledge with your colleagues (yokoten), linking work to strategy (hoshin kanri), self-reflection (hansei) or building consensus (nemawashi).

    All relevant information becomes available in one space, arranged from strategic intention to proposals for improvement. A space that is also close to where the work is being done, the Gemba. You should be able to host 2 to 12 people in a few minutes, close to the Gemba. The information is on the wall and is available via digital systems on screens. Data is as up-to-date as possible, available in real-time, or it has been made clear that it is ‘old’ data that may be useful for detecting and making new improvements.


    Connecting information to people and people to each other

    Visibility of information, transparency that applies to all relevant information, and visual organization are important quality attributes. When you walk into a well-equipped Obeya with your team, you would like to have easy access to everything you need. Information should be clear so that there are no misunderstandings. Then you are adequately enabled to identify improvements, make decisions and take action.

    But this is just the foundational layer. First and foremost, it’s about the people. Nothing happens with all that neatly collected information if there are no people around willing to commit to each other and use the given platform to take action in pursuit of process improvement.

    The Obeya connects information to people and therefore people to each other. By applying a repeatable rhythm and fixed structure, people in the Obeya meet other experts in their own field. All that expertise is needed to realize the strategic intention of the organization. Team members evaluate the status of their work and assess whether they are on schedule. Barriers can be discussed. Are improvements possible? Where can we apply these? Who will take action and what is needed to support that ownership?

    Stay ahead with the Obeya Navigation System

    Managers assess where resources can be deployed and see, at a glance, what that could mean for other domains. There is always the conviction that everything we undertake is aligned with our customer demand, and we’re assured that we are realizing the strategic intentions of our organization together.


    Defining the Obeya

    The Obeya is also called the war room, truth-telling room, project studio, program room, the business performance room, the Kaizen corner, the adrenaline room, the focus room, the organization cockpit or the mission control area. Every Obeya is unique; again it is, after all, a reflection of the specific work of a group of people, possibly marked within a given time frame, unique to the DNA of an organization.

    Some Obeyas exist for the duration of a project. Other Obeyas serve as a more permanent space to keep an overview of all the work and programs within an organization, such as the Pulse Room at Scania Trucks. What they have in common is that:

    The Obeya provides an advanced visual representation of the relevant, planned work and work in progress of a group of people in an organization, therefore supporting their frequent meetings and will to continuously improve their group performance, while taking their shared strategy to execution and professionalizing their collaboration [Janssen, 2019].


    Better and faster decisions, are made together

    An Obeya results in enormous savings in time, provided that the meetings are well structured and of a high quality. That basically makes it unnecessary to hold many other meetings outside this Obeya Navigation System. The complete system – the room, the information, the organization, the people, the meetings – ensures that knowledge can be shared in an effective and efficient way, that teamwork is more integrated and mistakes can be prevented, that the strategic connection is better anchored, and that decision-making can be accelerated.


    How is my system doing today?

    All kinds of irregularities occur every day in your organization that lead to one of two conditions: the system is in control or it is not. Extremely simplified but both conditions touch the heart of our company, the work of the people, the lives of our customers. An important principle of visual management is therefore that any deviations from the standard must be explained and illustrated. Preferably in such a way that it is clear at a glance where the problem occurs, and with which instructions or standard operating procedures the problem can be reduced or remedied.

    Through visual management, everyone remains well-informed about the condition of the entire system. Visual management helps to identify problems and closes the difference between goal and reality: it is a way to stabilize the process and improve it. Visual management thus becomes a powerful tool for motivating people in the workplace to achieve organizational goals.


    Improved Team Engagement

    Due to the frequent meetings in the Obeya, where freedom of speech is actively promoted, problems are less likely to accumulate. The Obeya actively invites people to share problems and not keep them out of sight. “Visual management contributes to changing the perspective of working in silos and blaming each other to a focus on the problem and the work process. It generates a much higher level of teamwork and employee engagement,” says Daniel Jones, coauthor of The Machine that Changed the World and Lean Thinking. He continues: “Working with an Obeya allows you to choose your objective as well as the right set of performance indicators, to monitor progress well and to easily identify delays in workflows, to escalate quickly when necessary and to continue to learn how it can be better for the next project.”


    Feel the Rythm

    Even more important is the renewed context that is created by working in the Obeya: decisions are made together, based on the factual information available on the wall. Resource limitations between collaborating departments or teams can be addressed and resolved immediately without such a discussion between departments leading to delay of project schedule. Acceleration of problem solving is achieved through frequent daily and weekly meetings. The predictable rhythm allows you to just consider the deviations from initial planning (instead of evaluating the whole plan again) and is therefore a huge time saver for everyone. In short, the Obeya brings all the elements of Lean Management together.

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