Keeping the Lean Journey on Course – Part 2

Last time I wrote about how companies I am working with are using the Obeya room process to take Lean Management to the next level.  These companies have put together a room within their organizations where the various aspects of the company’s business are planned, controlled, and reported each month using visual methods and PDCA.

This blog, then, continues my discussion of the Obeya room process.  In thinking about this blog, I realized that my loyal readers (yes, that’s you!!) need to know more about what actually happens in the Obeya room (as opposed to the theory) and how it can work for them in practice.

I’ll start by laying out the benefits.

The Obeya room process saves the leadership team a great deal of time. Without the Obeya room – where topics are addressed by the entire leadership team together in one place at one time – issues are typically discussed in a series of separate meetings.  These formal and informal meetings often do not have everybody together and they often lack structure and focus.  The Obeya room brings the entire leadership team together.   The Obeya room process leads them to focus on the right issues, and take the right actions. Lean leaders can achieve a great deal in much less total time.

The Obeya room creates good and open communication within the leadership team. It creates a common knowledge and understanding of what each person is doing and the status of the work.  It provides a valuable “bird’s eye view” of the Lean organization as a whole.

The Obeya room process also creates better communications across the organization. The leaders can bring their own team-members into the Obeya room to show them the company’s progress in general or to address specific topics. Often this enterprise Obeya room is fed by, and feeds to, visual management boards and reviews in other parts of the company, and to the value stream boards.

The Obeya room is also used by teams within the company when they need to meet and resolve issues. The availability of current and succinct information about the company’s strategy, plans, and progress is a useful backdrop for other working teams.

The structure and format of the Obeya room process enables the leadership team to keep focused on the strategic issues they alone can address.

The Obeya room process keeps leadership from the tendency to “micro manage” the company. The information they are reviewing is presented at the right level of detail to enable the leaders to focus on important issues and take appropriate action, and yet not so detailed for them to interfere with the daily activities that are the province of empowered employees throughout the organization.

What happens in the Obeya Room?

Just to be clear: the Obeya room is designed by the Leadership team itself.  They define the format, purpose, layout and use of each of the sections – or “walls.”

The team also defines the questions that need to be asked at every wall. The purpose of this is to ensure that the information there is reviewed consistently and thoroughly every month. The questions are very important. If you ask the right questions, then the team will address the right issues thoroughly.

The review starts at the Plan “wall” (or section) and proceeds in order through Do, Check, and Act.

The leadership team uses their predefined questions to uncover the current status of the company’s activities, and to identify problems and issues requiring countermeasures. Very often the value stream managers or other leadership team people will have already put countermeasures into action, and the team reviews these countermeasures. When the leadership team concludes there is a need to take new action, a Post-it® note is placed on the section to highlight the issue.

Next is an example of a “Check” wall; from this you can get an idea of what’s included in this section, and you can also see that Post-it® notes have been placed where necessary.

The team proceeds from one section to the next while lively—sometimes very lively – discussion occurs.  The standard questions serve to reveal the issues and identify problems while keeping the discussion on track. The team discusses these issues in depth. The Obeya room houses ample supplies and equipment so that brainstorming, analysis, and problem solving can be done throughout the process – on the spot. At each wall the need for leadership team actions is identified, and highlighted with Post-it® notes.

When the team reaches the Act board, they gather up the Post-it® notes from the review of the previous sections; next they apply an appropriate visual method to consolidate and prioritize any actions required. From this process important action steps are assigned to people on the leadership team using the standard “who, why, what, where, when, and how” method. Some of these assignments may involve substantial projects requiring an A3-style plan. Others will be smaller and simpler “just-do-it” tasks. The team also reviews the progress of previously assigned tasks.

The final step of the Act process is to do reflection and insights. This is also done on a pre-designed board. Some of the reflection relates directly to the Obeya room process itself. As a group the executive team examines “What worked well?” “What needs to be improved?” “Did we get the right level of participation?” And so on.

As the team gains experience in the Obeya room, their insights will move into deeper reflection of the company, the strategy, the wider environment and purposes of the organization.

The Obeya room meeting is controlled by a tight, pre-designed agenda. This is not a meeting for general discussion. The primary time is spent on the formal process that has been laid out and the actions coming from them. There is of course time built into the agenda for less formal activities, but the bulk of the time goes according to the plan.

Where do we go from here?

The Obeya rooms I have been working on lately have all been developed at companies where the entire leadership team works in the same location. The next challenge for many Lean companies will be to develop a way to bring the Leadership team members together when they are geographically spread out.

It’s not uncommon for there to be significant cultural issues, time-zone constraints, and language differences between company units spread out across the globe.  Designing an effective virtual Obeya room process that takes these factors into account and envisions a unified strategic approach over often disparate entities, all the while accomplishing important leadership tasks, will be a challenge.

We have had some success with virtual planning using the SOFP process. But companies want to take this farther.  I will be working with one BMA customer on the development of a virtual Obeya room for a global division of a multinational organization. It will be very interesting to see what different sorts of tools are brought to the job, and how the Obeya room process adapts, while still meeting the need.

Stay tuned…