Obeya – 20 Years Old

An Obeya is a large room for visual management and jidoka. Obeya was invented in 1993 as part of the Prius project with the aim to shorten lead times.

I first heard about Obeya and periodic stand-up meetings in 1998 while working with operation development at Scania. What I heard about Obeya had so many surprises that it really took me a while grasp.

At this point in time I had, from time to time, been involved in different efforts to increase the productivity in product development. Until then, the development engineers had always been the focus of our work. We tried to increase productivity with the help of planning and different project models.

Obeya changed our ideas of how problems should be solved. Not only do you meet standing up at an Obeya but Obeya meetings are considerably shorter –  minutes instead of hours – compared to normal meetings. However, the big surprise for me was who participated in the Obeya meetings: management.

Clues to the Secret of the Obeya

It took me several years to understand what made these visual meetings with management so powerful. I found clues in books written by organization theorists (such Herbert Simon and James G. March). Further clues came during the development of The Pulse guide in the early 2000s. During this time Ulla and I created a model with a Pulse room that suited the organization and culture of Nordic technology companies.

In a Pulse room information and feedback is visualized so that everyone can see what’s going on. Besides frequent meetings between designers that work with projects and tasks there are also regular meetings with management.

These managers represent different areas such as construction, acquisitions, production technology and marketing. Joint decisions are made and mutual action is taken. This creates heavy leveraging at the top of the operation, increasing the organization’s ability to take appropriate actions. Learning increases.

Obeya was invented between 1993-1994 when Toyota created the development project for the Prius hybrid. To develop a new car model is normally an incredibly complex task.

However, with Prius they also had to develop a new driveline. These kind of projects can take a lot of time with lead times reaching up to ten years.

The goal of the Prius was to launch the car in 1997 which was seen at the time as “mission impossible.” Against all odds, Toyota reached its goal and the car was developed in just three years. With this success Toyota didn’t just have a new product to offer the market but a whole new organizational model! This model might have been a more important success than the hybrid.

Obeya and Prius

The Obeya used during the Prius project was in many ways a kind of “project room.” We refer to this kind of project room as a Pulse room. In the Pulse room multiple projects can be developed. In the Pulse room the whole operation’s strategy and development work take place.

All levels and functions are included in the Pulse guide and by doing so we could replace traditional project management with visual management. Furthermore, we could let the project’s Pulse board become the information and feedback that management use in order to help with decision-making.

We also supplemented the concept with the organization’s strategic development. This meant that management and specialists that developed new markets, new products and new production technology solutions became a part of Pulse.

Anyone who has tried an Obeya or a Pulse room with management meetings has probably realized one thing: it’s a big success. However, there are pitfalls that can cancel out part of the positive effects. In some cases I’ve seen a bureaucratic viewpoint visualized when the management use visualization to control and monitor the project workers.

In the bureaucratic tradition it’s also common for management, probably subconsciously, to have a personal agenda. When correctly implemented, management needs to place the problems and progress achieved within the strategic context of the operation. There is also a need to work together with the use of visual decision-making meetings; this type of coordinated action leads to success.

In an article in Ny Teknik, a Swedish technology publication, you can read about how Toyota has now created a new development center based around the Obeya concept. This is a strong  indication of how important Obeya is for Toyota.

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