Obeya: how spaces influence team productivity

If you’ve ever tried to work in a coffee shop, you might have come to realize all too quickly that all those TV shows and movies showcasing the main character working diligently in such a space leans more toward fiction than anything else. You’ll often find these spaces too noisy, cramped, distracting, or all of the above. This can make productivity, efficiency, and even collaboration a headache to navigate. Sadly this isn’t just limited to our neighborhood coffee spots but can apply to many other spaces in the workplace as well. 

Naturally, with so many people working together in a consistent and operational fashion, it can be difficult to get a proper overview of all the different aspects of any particular project. With complexities at sky-high now regarding which stakeholders have the most say regarding any particular task, sometimes getting people all in the same workspace can be the most important thing for you. 

If this situation sounds familiar, rest assured you’re not alone in such an experience. It’s been such a rampant observation in past business operations that Toyota had developed a special method of addressing such a situation: the Obeya.

What is an Obeya?

Compared to a lot of different frameworks and techniques that you may have learned so far, the Obeya might be the most tangible and relatively easy-to-realize method to use in your workspace. Obeya itself means “large room” in Japanese, which means exactly that for the purposes of the method: a large room dedicated to collaboration, with key decision-makers in the room. 

It may seem like something intuitive or standard in a work office setting, but the mere specification of a joint collaborative room does wonders for how a project is approached. This theory is supported by certain consumer experience design theories that suggest that even the physicality and presence of material objects within a location can have a profound effect on how an individual experiences time and space. 

The main idea for an obeya is for it to be able to lower the chances of the “silo effect” occurring within companies through a more open and collaborative sharing of information to achieve the best possible solution in everyone’s favor. For example, a company that produces t-shirts needs to align properly on the type of t-shirt to be produced, marketing methods, supply chain management, and more. An obeya here would include additional support tools like graphs, charts, work maps, timelines, and organizational structures to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding a project. Visual project ideation and management techniques can be utilized here as well, such as mind maps and Gantt charts to better strategize on key aspects of the plan.

As such, obeya works best when tackling a specific and tangible project. For any one particular decision point, having all the required leaders and decision-makers present makes the obeya much more effective in delivering its intended benefits. Obeyas can be scheduled as a daily meeting, or extended through various different periods that better fit a company’s cycle of operations. Even impromptu meetings are welcome for the use of obeyas, especially in regard to those that have emergencies or crises to navigate through.

History of Obeya

Obeya is known to be an integral part of the lean management system but focuses on the tangible and (not always) physical spaces that people need to better collaborate with others. The obeya itself was formulated as a way to help generate ideas while having all the key personnel in the room get a more comprehensive view of aspects while aligning everyone to those views.  

It was Toyota that first developed the Obeya room as part of their “Globe 21st Century Project”, which is now known to be the origin of the development of their landmark Prius line in the 1990s. In their case, the issue had become how best to introduce an electric car concept to the market, likely a few decades before any other competitor did. It was the chief engineer for the project, Takeshi Uchiyamada, that understood that certain decisions were not being made in the interest of efficiency, time, and alignment. Specifically, Uchiyamada, “felt that he lacked the necessary authority to make the optimal decisions, and thought he could be overrun by experienced discipline leaders in a way that was not optimal for the project as such”. 

The obeya concept then started through this need to bring everyone in a single “large room” to better ideate on the ways to attack a particular problem. Similar to “war room” structures, the obeya was meant to become the central discussion space for all things that would relate to a particular project. Due to the effectiveness of the obeya in its application within the renowned “Toyota Production System”, other businesses began utilizing the obeya concept as part of their own business processes. This means new business strategies, software development plans, and even internal reorganizations could utilize the obeya as part of their larger strategic tool kit.

Ways to Utilize an Obeya

There are many ways to utilize an obeya space as it remains highly contextualized towards the specific purpose needed by the company at any given point in time. There are, however, a few elements that remain fairly consistent throughout different iterations of an obeya room. One of these elements is a visual representation of the plan itself. Due to the highly complex nature of some projects, it was often necessary to include visual representations of certain technical aspects of a project, so that non-focused teams can still grasp the overarching meaning of any particular project dimension.

The Physical Obeya

The physical obeya is likely the most common and frequently used obeya that you’ll see in the workplace. Often the obeya might not even be called “obeya” officially; these large rooms can be known as “collaboration rooms”, “war rooms”, “focus rooms”, and more. The essential feature of obeyas and unofficial obeyas is that they are a place specifically chosen for collaborative work. 

If you find yourself organizing an obeya for the first time, you want to ensure some items are available for your team to utilize while in the room. We’ve mentioned the importance of visual informative materials that can better elevate and align the discussion across parties, but another important aspect to consider is interactivity. Engagement is one of the best ways for teams to arrive at innovative solutions, as it allows for a better sense of motivating creativity. As such, having whiteboards and large illustration pads can be useful in holding workshop sessions that can better create a sense of combined effort regarding a particular project. Moreover, the visual aspect of the interactivity can help create new ideas that might not have intuitively been present. 

Another helpful thing to explore is the layout of the spaces within the obeya itself. As we mentioned, obeyas will require different layouts of working spaces to better accommodate the different working styles required for specific tasks. For an all-hands on discussion, you can better accommodate this through larger table set ups, while individual or small group work can be segmented off in small divided areas.

The Digital Obeya

As you may know by now, physical spaces aren’t exactly on the forefront of many companies looking towards adapting to the so-called “new normal”. With the pandemic essentially flipping workspaces on its head, employers and employees needed to switch to a fully remote working set-up at the expense of all the little aspects and collaborations that were available in the office. 

Collaboration is still integral of course, despite the sudden lack of collaborative channels. This meant that tasks were often completed much slower and without as much cross-team work. This could likely mean more errors and stakeholder complaints as you fail to get a full view of the different important aspects that might be out of your purview. 

Just because an obeya is normally understood as a physical space, doesn’t mean you can’t apply its principles towards the virtual realm. To better mitigate the difficulties that have arisen from the shift to work-from-home set-ups, a dedicated albeit digital space can work just as well in collaborating with all the relevant stakeholders. Consider your next “all-hands-on” digital meeting to be an opportunity to utilize obeya strategies to get input from as many key stakeholders as you can.

Take, for example, the importance of engagement and interactivity when it comes to sparking innovations. While physical obeyas needed management of materials and supplies to accommodate the types of workshops you’ll need to hold, digital workspaces (depending on the platform) will likely already have collaborative tools in place. Moreover, you can begin utilizing multimedia functions like audio and video to better illustrate points during key working sessions without the hassle of worrying about setting it up in a physical space. 

Even the “layout” of spaces can be managed with a bit more prevision in a digital medium. While a standard obeya will need tables, chairs, and boards, a digital obeya can simply utilize breakout room functions to better collect information on a small group level before presenting it to the larger in-attendance.

Silos and Obeya’s Effect on Workplaces

Obeyas affect the workplace mainly as a relatively simple method of cross-team collaboration on projects that likely have material effect on the organization. We mentioned before how obeyas can help mitigate the chance for the “silo effect” to occur, but we also understand that silos do exist in workplaces for valid reasons. The housing of experts based on different areas makes sense especially when trying to get them to achieve specific functions. But the matter remains that the expertise they have can also better serve the projects that require more than just one perspective from a functional expert. 

Like basketball, obeya services as one of the best ways to get a comprehensive approach to all things that affect multiple internal stakeholders. It’s understood that in basketball there are several different positions a player can have, such as power forward, center, and point guard. While each has their own specialty and method of winning at their task, it takes the complete cohesion of all these different roles to produce results. Smart “coaches” understand that the practice rooms can help serve as obeyas, allowing skirmishes and testing how each player reacts and works with each other. 

When layering on the reality of the workplace, these distinctions become a little hazier and trickier to navigate. For example, marketing and sales are often seen as interconnected, but their scope of work largely differs both from a strategic point of view to an executional one. Yet one can hardly survive without the other, as marketing provides the overall strategic plan while the sales team has the expertise to execute it accordingly. 

In cases like the one above, it’s not uncommon to run into problems that can cause friction between departments. Normally it arises from a conflict in overall objectives, but at times it can arise from the feeling of underrepresentation within a particular project. As such, it’s key to bring in the leaders from departments that have relevancy with the matter, to ensure their voices are heard. 

At the end of the day, the focus should be delivering maximum value to the consumer through a clear understanding of what to do and the reasons for doing so. Gemba Coach Michael Ballé puts it into words well, stating that “[a]n obeya is clearly a tool of teamwork: helping managers in various functions solve problems across their borders.

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