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Is your obeya room used for real learning or as a glorified action plan?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How can I use an obeya for learning rather than for project management?

Excellent question – yes, most obeyas I see are centered around a large plan and the conversations are mostly about “are we on track or not to meet the deadline?” There is nothing wrong, obviously, about this discussion except when it missed the previous topic of “are we delivering the right product/service?”

Not surprisingly, many tools and techniques perfected by Toyota as on-the-job development practices get misinterpreted as operational “get-things-done” levers (to be fair, this happens within Toyota as well). To ask ourselves the question of the obeya’s intent, let’s revisit the PDCA steps of on-the-job development that Toyota teaches us:

  1. Step one - Confirm the company hoshin and vision to identify suitable work: work that teams find challenging, motivating and gives a sense of achievement.
  2. Step two - Assign work: this has two dimensions, motivation and space to think. The aim of motivation is that “must-do” work becomes “want-to-do-work.” To do so, one tries to convey the intent of the mission, explain the standards, and process, and strive to build mutual trust and respect. Space to think is, well, to get people to think. This is created by giving clues and hints, not answers.
  3. Step three – Monitoring and leading to completion, is mostly about grasping the work situation, and then coaching teams to deal with it, which, again, involves motivation and space to think in many PDCA cycles.
  4. Step four - Give a sense of achievement: evaluate the results, give feedback and let the team self-evaluate its own development, with the aim of supporting a feeling of achievement and personal growth.

Obeya Purpose

How can a project obeya achieve its developmental purpose rather than devolve in one more management petty control tool? Most importantly, we need to keep in mind that the aim of the room is space to think and motivation.

The various sections of the wall should therefore support:

  1. Seeing together and understanding together the intent of the project: how are we going to satisfy customers with what we do.
  2. Seeing together and understanding together what is happening and how we overcome obstacles, in order to develop self-confidence and confidence in each other.  
  3. Seeing together and understanding together key metrics to check whether we’re progressing fast enough (and, yes, completion of a project plan is one such metric, but not the only one).
  4. Seeing together and understanding together how we can create better circumstances for success, which mainly means dealing with the rest of the organization.

Obeya Segments

We can thus visualize four sections to the obeya:

  1. A customer wall: a section dedicated to the customer with customer complaints, customer feedback, customer preferences analysis and any other element that can give us cues into how our project is going to bring value to the support the customer’s current lifestyle.
  2. An A3 wall to show how we are solving product-centric problems: the product (or service) should appear centrally and visually so that we can all see what, exactly we are trying to build, which means concept, QFD matrix, key features and current learning A3s of how we learn to solve difficult problems.
  3. A metrics wall: typically centered around a large visible project plan, but including other metrics, such as quality and cost to make sure we’re on track.
  4. A concurrent wall: no project exists in isolation and the last section of the obeya is dedicated to the interactions with key other functions and/or suppliers and handling the coordination of the environment, often, again, through A3s of problems solved to learn how to overcome obstacles.

This is not project management – this is creating space to think. None of these sections are supposed to be comprehensive, they’re supposed to be dynamic to sustain and nourish a sense of collective engagement and, yes, fun, particularly if we’re working across functions. The customers and product/service should stand out visible and intuitive, to be a beacon, a bright flame shining at the center of the room in order to frame effectively why we’re here, working together, so that we can pick wise hows and effectives whats.

Evaluating an Obeya

Clearly, there is no one way to set an obeya – I’ve visited many and they’re all different. Obeyas are simple to evaluate. As I stand in one, I ask myself:

  • Do I get an intuitive idea of who the customers are?
  • Do I get a feel for the product/service or outcome the teams are trying to achieve, and can I see specific obstacles they’re encountering and how they’re trying to overcome them?
  • Do I see at a glance in what shape the project is in terms of delivery quality, milestones, and costs.
  • Do I grasp the organizational environment of the project and how the team is developing teamwork not just internally but across the boundaries of the project to other key stakeholders?

In other words, does this obeya prompt me to think deeply about the situation. Sadly, many obeyas are drawn from consulting templates and dedicated to managing tasks (as post-it notes), not understanding the content of the tasks. This twisted version of the obeya achieves precisely the opposite of what we seek – they quickly become yet another tool for management pressure and sacrificing outcome quality to hitting targets and objectives. Brrr.

To answer your question, your obeya will be a space for learning if you intend it as such. If the space is designed for space to think and motivation, this will create the right conditions for the team to learn, grow, and feel successful and, in John Shook’s terms, learn to use constraints as their friend. If the obeya is designed as a project management space, teams might appreciate the time together and the visibility it gives, but the odds are the team will focus on managing tasks rather than think deeply and solve problems to create customer value. In the end, your own personal attitude to the obeya will determine its uses and its outcomes.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Vitezslav Pilmaier October 7, 2015

Why it is not possible to add likes under such articles ? I would add all 5 likes (on a 5 likes scale) ! You had to make me think - deeply think and it will take some time for to figure out with what you have said in this article :o).

October 15, 2015

Another great post. Truly helpful for retrospective. THANkS!

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