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Making Oobeya Work

Nov. 29, 2016
In the “big room,” it’s transparency, not size, that matters.

Those that follow my writing know I don’t focus on lean tools. When I do write about tools, I try to accomplish two things. First, demystify dogma. Second, connect true purpose to useful application.

1. What is oobeya? It is a Japanese word meaning “big room,” but the lean version is more than having a big room. Oobeya (also spelled obeya) sounds like magic, and its visual nature is great for showing off. IndustryWeek’s Jill Jusko described oobeya well in Obeya: The Brain of the Lean Enterprise, and so I won’t spend much space on it here. Good descriptions that I have used instead are communication room, command center and sometimes just visual management.

2. How big? If oobeya is a big room, how big should it be? This isn’t the most important question but it exposes one of the most common failures. People find a conference room with enough wall space to post stuff, and then you hope no one schedules meetings there when you need it most. You shouldn’t have to go to the oobeya. If someone asks “Where is your oobeya?” the answer should already be, “You’re standing in it.”

The point is to keep the information you need to manage and solve problems close to where the work is done and to the people who need it. I would prefer you stand up partitions in the work areas to display information than just find a room with an empty wall.

3. Content or process? Which should you design and plan first, your content or your process for using your oobeya? This is a big chicken and egg question, because they must evolve together, but I find people put too much faith in simply selecting the right metrics to post. There are no magic metrics.

The process matters more. What conversations will you have? With whom? How will you react to what you see and hear? These design questions require continuous reflection and improvement.

4. What will it replace? Oobeya is not “in addition to” but “instead of” other management and control means. While it will likely feel less like control, you must exchange oobeya for other means designed for communication and control. Stop your line-by-line project management reviews, your PowerPoint decks, and special ad-hoc meetings.

If you have a question, concern or decision to make, make it by the walls of your oobeya. If you find it insufficient and are drawn back to your packaged reviews, then improve your oobeya content and process until it allows you to have the necessary discussions.

5. Who is the customer? For most elements of design, you do not want to serve multiple masters. But in the use of oobeya, I believe there are two masters: those doing the work, and those who support those doing the work. Why is this important? Because one of the primary objectives of oobeya is transparency. Transparency of direction, transparency of progress, and transparency of outcomes. We cannot achieve transparency if management and team members work off different sources of information.

Oobeya should solve transparency problems. Teams want visibility into their strategies and their progress against them, into what the rest of the team is doing or deciding, and to see the complexities and interconnections so that we are not working against each other. Ultimately, transparency is the customer of oobeya.

6. Can it be digital? This shouldn’t be the next question, but it is one of the most common. Before trying to move your oobeya to a digital platform, you should first ask if you’ve exhausted every option of getting people into the same space. Even if you fail to fulfill that objective, you will likely bring people closer together in your attempts and learn what is most needed.

Once you must go digital, pursue a flexible platform to allow change. And ensure people work within the platform, not spend time updating it.

Oobeya is more than a big room; it is a process of engagement, transparency and work.

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