About Leading with Obeya

Gepubliceerd op 28 April 2021

Get more out of the potential of your leadership team

leiderschap met Obeya - het boekLeadership with Obeya (meaning ‘big room’ in Japanese) is about the challenges of leadership at every level of the organization and provides a means of how to deal with them. The driving force behind the success of every team and organization are the people. In the Obeya we use our strongest sense (the eyes) and develop effective habits and thought patterns so that we can best utilize the human leadership potential.

There’s probably a lot more potential in your leadership team than you’re getting out of it right now. Where self-managing teams, Lean  and Agile working have been trending  topics over the past few years, these movements mainly focus on the operational teams. But what about the teams at leadership level? Isn’t there a need for improvement? Or can they keep doing what they’ve always done?

Each person or team with  a leadership role at any level in the organization basically has three tasks to perform:

  1. Establish a goal that  we want to achieve with the organization
  2. Ensuring that the capabilities are in place to achieve that goal
  3. Ensuring that the organization has a plan to realize the goal as effectively as possible (together)

Common challenges with leading organizations

In practice, however, these three things do not turn out to be so easy as they may sound. In Leading with Obeya, four main reasons are identified that make leading organizations difficult:

  1. The complexity of organizations and the world around them makes them difficult to control
  2. Our brains constantly tend to make errors of thought (bias) that influence our decisions in an already complex world
  3. Based on our dominant management practices, we are used to providing individuals with objectives to chase (often in the short term). This leads to competition between teams and departments pursuing self-interest rather than stimulating coherent and collaborative working across the organizational system.
  4. We see leaders as individuals who each lead the organization with their own working methods, plans and priorities. We miss the opportunity to see leadership as a craft that all leaders could practice together while systematically creating rhythm, synergy and coherence throughout the organization.

Looking around in organizations, people in a leadership or management position are intelligent, well intentioned individuals, often working 50+ hours a week and thus spending a great deal of their personal time and energy into their jobs. But without dealing with these challenges, the individual efforts are not as effective as they could be. And that’s a shame, given the investment and dedication that many leaders and managers put into their jobs.

How to deal with leadership challenges?

How can we deal with these challenges? How can we ensure that organisations make maximum use of the capabilities of their leaders? And how come, despite the piles of books on leadership, we haven’t made real progress for decades, and it seems like we’re moving from one management hype to another without really seeing better results?

A lot of literature at leadership level is about vision, style and ways of thinking (mindset). But there is a lack of practical tools to do things differently. Since  Deming and Shewart introduced a cycle of continuous improvement in the middle of the last century,  everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but in practice we often get no further than Plan and Do, let alone Study and Act. Thinking something like to quit smoking is a good idea does not mean that you will stop the next day, or even to be able to effectively stop altogether. For this to work, we need to teach ourselves new, effective habits. The same goes for new, effective leadership habits. We may complain about long dusty meetings, and we might know about some ideas how to make them more effective, but that doesn’t mean we will effectively put that into practice.

In practice, we  see a  top 3 of common needs that leadership teams themselves express. They want to:

  1. Less strategic plans that remain vague and get lost in the archive after which we get bogged down in day to day operations, but more visible results in the short and long term
  2. Working less in silos, but more collaboration as a team on common goals with clear responsibilities
  3. Less meetings that feel ineffective with few decisions and actions, but more with structure, discipline and focus on results

Changing your leadership game with Obeya

If you keep doing what you’ve always done,  you’ll get what you’ve always had. With this  knowledge, Toyota developed the Prius in the late  1990s with the help of Obeya. The result  at the time:  a car twice as economical than any comparable car on the market, affordable and the most successful hybrid car in the world. And oh yes, also developed faster than comparable cars at that time. That was only possible by really making things different and not just thinking differently.   What Toyota has achieved in  their large room is the extension and of old habits by implementing new, more effective ways of working.

Then what’s so effective about this way of working with Obeya? Two elements form a major part.

  1. The first to stand out when you see an Obeya is the People in the Obeya can make optimal use of their strongest sense: the eyes. This creates insight, overview, prevents errors of thought, ensures that you always have the relevant information at hand and helps you to set priorities while uncovering obstacles and problems. Toyota has been working with visual management since the middle of the last century and is very good at this. To get close to that level you will have to practice for a while, but nonetheless embarking on this practice will have instant value.
  2. Even more important than presenting information on the wall in an attractive way is the continuous practice of effective habits. If you don’t use what’s on the wall in a good way, the investment of hanging up in the first place also yields little. That is why it is important  to include the practice of the principles and ways of thinking in your daily practice. That is why there is a fixed meeting routine in the Obeya that helps us put good ideas and principles into practice effectively on a daily   At first it feels uncomfortable and it’s difficult  because you do things  differently than you were used to. But that’s a good sign: you’re learning something new. After a while it starts to become a habit and you will find it feels better and easier and it becomes more and more clear to you why you do things this way.

In Leading with Obeya you can read  about  the visualizations and the principles that guide effective behavior patterns in the big room. The  book also contains a reference model, which shows what you should expect to see on the walls of an Obeya for leading your organization, but also what principles for thinking & acting are expected of the team. These principles are represented as a foundation in the wall with the principle of rhythm & routine as an entrance door of the Obeya.

When you get started

When you start with Obeya, you notice that continuous improvement is not about achieving (short-term) goals, but that the strength lies in continuously improving the way you achieve goals. You improve this way of working by doing it instead of just talking about it. The shift from focusing on goals towards achieving a continuous improvement mindset will slowly follow, with discipline. You literally have to train your brain (and the brains of people you work with) with effective routines and questions to create those new habits.

Using visualization techniques and following strict routines in your meetings will help your team a great deal to immediately put a more effective working method into practice and stick to it. And the great thing is, not only your team can learn this, but also teams above, below, left and right in the organization. The method is in line with Lean-  and Agile-movements but also fits perfectly into traditionally driven organizations, provided you are willing to adopt all aspects of Leading with Obeya – If you have a working system, you can’t expect the system to still function properly if you take out parts of it.

From a sample of teams that started with Leading with Obeya in 2020, 92% indicate that it has improved effectiveness of the way of working for the people using Obeya. Most frequently mentioned benefits are more effective meetings, better cooperation and clear goals and responsibilities. The main indicated challenge for teams in the remaining 8% was to find out that they need other teams in their department to also improve their way of working to gain widespread benefits for their organizational system.

Working with Obeya is a way to maximize human leadership potential at all levels of your organization. Leadership with Obeya  explains how to do just that.


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