What is Pulse? A Short Introduction

What is Pulse? Pulse has daily stand-up meetings, visual management and planned demonstrations that give feedback. Pulse encompasses the whole organization.

If you visit a company that works with Pulse you will find a Pulse room where the walls are covered with white boards filled with information, referred to as Pulse boards. If you look closer at these boards you’ll see that several of the boards look alike. These are the Pulse project boards. There are also a lot of boards that stand out. On first impression, the Pulse room might seem messy. In addition to printed plans there are post-its, colored magnets and handwritten documents.

What is Pulse?

Vad är puls?
Pulse meeting in session

If you spend the morning in the Pulse room you’ll notice people gathering by the Pulse boards every so often for short Pulse meetings. During these short meetings they discuss what has been completed, what work is currently in progress and what needs to be done next. At the same time they update their board. The meeting participants use the post-its during the meeting. By moving them between different headlines they can show which tasks need to be done, are being worked on or are completed. The groups work together well and are alert. Everyone participates in the discussions and helps update the information on the board. After a couple of minutes they leave. Some people return for other meetings but no one participates in all of the meetings.

If you were to return on Friday morning you would also see Pulse meeting but it would be a different kind of Pulse meeting. Now it’s the management of the organization and the project managers that take center stage. During several subsequent Pulse meetings they deal with the serious problems that have been encountered within the projects, plan resource distribution for the upcoming week and discuss strategic issues. Pulse boards are also used during these meetings and are kept updated throughout the meetings. The meetings are short and information is kept flowing between the meetings through the participants and the use of post-its.

It becomes clear that the Pulse room is a kind of central dispatch where the organization as a whole can coordinate and decisions are made to keep the company running. The information on the walls also helps the participants interact. The Pulse boards create transparency so that everyone can see how the other teams are doing as well as the status of the organization as a whole. The Pulse boards also demonstrate the impressive number of projects which are completed every year.

What Isn’t Visible Using Pusle?

Will putting up some white boards in order to complete projects at a faster pace increase the pulse of an organization? There are some ingredients in Pulse that are not visible from the outside.

Projects and tasks are started in order to realize a strategy. Exploring which projects to begin in order to realize reach long-term and short-term goals is an ongoing process which is achieved using groups of commercial and technical executives that hold daily Pulse meetings. They give the outlines of the results that the projects are supposed to deliver and by doing so determine the direction of the organization’s development.

The groups are self-organized. This means that they are expected to act within their own authority. The outline of the project is made up of the goals that have been agreed upon. The project’s overreaching plan is developed by the people who will be doing the actual work and be a part of the project group. It’s an important prerequisite in order for the team to be self-organized and able to effectively work together during the Pulse meetings. The plan shows which results will be turned over during the project and the displays will guarantee that the goals have been reached.

Results Are Attained Through Interaction

The more people interact, the more obstacles and problems are discovered. A majority of these the issues can take care of themselves during the Pulse meetings. However, some are outside the scope of the projects’ authorities and need to be taken up at the coordinating weekly Pulse meetings. The pace of the projects is dependent on the knowledge that problems outside their authority can be handled quickly by the management of the organization. It’s here that the coordinated weekly Friday Pulse meetings play a vital role.

Producing results is more important than having a lot going on. If you start too many projects and small assignments at the same time then work will slow down, which will decrease output and increase development times. It’s important to know how many projects the company has the capacity to maintain and the rest will have to wait.

Further Reading

Learn more at This is Pulse. Also, see the Agile Pulse, a simplified version of the Pulse guide.

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.

Visual Decision-Making Structure

The visual decision-making structure is the foundation of an agile network organization. The organization is visualized through the network of Pulse meetings in the Pulse room.

Organigram-hierarki

“Let me show you our organization” are words you might hear when first meeting a company as a job seeker or potential business partner. The picture that is oftentimes shown is that of a hierarchical structure. You can see which departments are organized under the CO and the different staff. If you look closer, the names of managers and personnel appear. The organization that is shown is based on people and their relationship towards each other. However, today it’s rare that a single boss can make all of the important decisions; instead they are made during board meetings.

Hierarchical Linear Organizations

Hierarchial-organisation-network

The organization chart doesn’t show what discussion forums already exist. You can only vaguely imagine a management team and departmental meetings. Additionally, cross-functional meetings that are necessary for the organization are missing. Production might have planning meetings, quality service meetings and daily management meetings. Within projects there are project meetings, board meetings or a product board. Besides daily management, these are not frequent meetings, maybe just weekly or monthly. They take place sitting around a meeting table with no aids besides presentations and summaries shown using a computer and projector. When the projector is turned off, accumulated picture disappears. Since a hierarchical structure is dependent upon people developing the organization, individuals are supposed to carry the knowledge and decisions between meetings. Here it’s possible to see big gaps in the structural level since the individuals move around in different spheres that don’t overlap and have a tendency to forget. It doesn’t help if individuals reappear in different meeting constellations when issues and decisions aren’t being shared between the meetings as well. Information and feedback don’t flow through the organization; they tend to stop and get lost between different decision-making forums. This creates frustration since the meetings both take up a lot of time and the decisions are unclear or non-existent due to the lack of up-to-date information.

Visual Decision-Making Structure Using Pulse

Agile-network-organisation-hubb

With a network of Pulse meetings a visual decision-making structure is established in the Pulse room that has the capacity to make decisions quickly with the help of up-to-date information. The Pulse meetings are frequent and are part of the same feedback loop in order to create a decision-making network that moves questions, decisions and information to the right forum. The Pulse boards are left after the meetings are over and remind the group and other parties of what decisions were made at the previous meeting and any new unfinished business.

The organization is constructed by institutions (the Pulse meetings) and the connections (questions, decisions and information) that exist between them. It’s this network that creates a visual decision-making structure.

The connections are partially supported by people yet Pulse boards have a crucial role to play. When a problem comes up it’s possible to take care of the problem by writing on a Post-it and putting it up on the appropriate Pulse board. The Post-it will remain on the boards until the problem is dealt with and how the problem is being handled can be traced by looking at the board. Information and feedback flows through the decision-making network and is used daily by the participants of the meetings to act, interact and relay information.

The Pulse room, Pulse boards and the Pulse meetings create an integrated and continuing flow that processes information. In other words, the Pulse guide has created an agile network organization.

Agile Network Organization for Demanding, High Tempo Work

The agile network organization is a new way to run an organization. An agile network organization can handle complex, high tempo tasks.

During the years we’ve worked with implementing the Pulse guide at various businesses we have learned holding more Pulse meetings and involving more people in the Pulse network will improve results.
In order to understand what a network is and how it differs with the approach during the Industrial Age, Foton lab has put together the following video:

Pulse is a network organization where certain nodes have more contacts than others and therefore more influence.

Agile-network-organisation-hubb

Random Networks

At an ordinary organization without a Pulse network, spontaneous interaction between people occurs in order to solve tasks. Some of this interaction is recurring and partially institutionalized through meeting forums. However, a large part of the interaction is random. The connections that exist between different parts of the operation are weak and information and demands are lost on the way, leading to loss of energy and more disruptions.

Agile Network Organization – Guided Networks

An agile network organization institutions are established that are supposed to handle all work and questions, both recurring and unique. Within a visual decision-making structure the institutions take the form of Pulse meetings. These are by necessity cross-functional so that information and interaction can spread to the relevant parts of the operation. Additionally, there needs to be enough institutions to handle demands and problems as well as have the knowledge and capacity to deal with them. For example, questions about technical choices are dealt with primarily by the developers of the projects, while questions about what investments are the responsibility of management. However, both these questions will affect each other, which makes it vital for information to flow between Pulse meetings. The greater the frequency of Pulse meetings and the greater the proportion of the operation involved leads to greater transmission of information throughout the organization.

Channelizing Energy

I like to explain the transportation and flow of information within an operation by comparing it to energy being transported through waves. Waves transport energy from the wind over large distances without transporting the water itself. Only a small current occurs when the wave passes by. It’s only when the wave hits the beach that the current breaks since the top and the bottom can’t move at the same speed anymore. When the wave breaks, the energy of the wave is lost in turbulence. The flow of information within an operation works in the same way: as long as information can be transported through the operation there are only small losses of energy. However, as soon as there are no connections between different parts of the organization the flow of information will slow down. The wave of information breaks and energy is lost in the form of stress and conflicts.

In order to turn an organization into an agile network there must be enough nodes with frequent intermediate connections and a network focused on letting management direct resources. Therefore, how the the network is created and where the nodes are established is important in order to ensure efficiency and adaptability.

Cross-Functional Work and Network Organizations

The best way to create cross-functional work is with the help of a fractal, shell-less network. This kind of an organization is quick and agile.

Cross-functional work (for example, projects, Scrum and management groups) are nowadays normal aspects of most operations. However, this was not the case when I started working in the early 80’s. Back then collaboration between different functions was handled by management and it wasn’t common even for engineers that had the same roles to talk about work with each other. Nonetheless, even at the time the complexity of the tasks was so great that managers were finding it difficult to handle collaboration effectively. The solution to this turned out to be projects.

Cross-functional Work and the Challenge of Decentralization

There is a saying that “yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems.” Projects led to faster and more effective communication between different groups (i.e., acquisitions, marketing or production), however, at the same time management lost influence and perspective of what was actually going on. When we analyze different companies, we can see many new problems popping up: overload from taking on too many projects and tasks at the same time, lack of clarity in decision-making and unclear goals.
Project models of the 90’s were built around standardized work-processes and push planning yet these created more problems than they solved. Every project is more or less unique and needs to create its own work methods based on the situation at hand. Projects are also much more effective when utilizing visual management (pull). What was missing from the project models was what the network between people should look like. The networks became random, which made them unreliable and inefficient. However, these types of networks were the only known ones before the turn of the millennium. Then small world networks and shell-free networks were discovered and these changed everything.

Agile Network Organizations

Tvärfunktionellt arbete
The Pulse meeting is a node in the network. Certain Pulse meetings are n (hubs) with many contacts. Certain Pulse meetings are hubs with many contacts.

Most of the time a shell-free network belongs to the small world network category. A small world network is a network in which the distance between people is short, regardless of a person’s  function or position. We create a small world network through implementing Pulse as an agile network organization.

A problem within Pulse is never more than 2-3 steps (Pulse meetings) from the managing director. A shell-free network is never fractal, which means that it looks the same everywhere. This makes it easy to adjust the network according to needs. A new project is added as a node in the network and is removed when finished. The same method assures us that any node can be added and removed without any taxing changes to the organization

What we refer to as nodes are different types of Pulse meetings that create permanent and temporary institutions. The network consists of the collaboration that happens between the different Pulse meetings where needs, decisions and results flow between them and a cross-functional work is created. Through a network of Pulse meetings a new formal organization with greater efficiency, shortened lead times and greater understanding is created and we call this an agile network organization.