Help, our management Obeya isn’t working!

Setting up an Obeya for managing (a part of) the organization and properly getting it to work with a management team is not an easy task. For example, because of the deceptive ease of which teams think they can setup an Obeya (simply by decorating a nice room with visuals and then start to have their meetings there), they might find themselves at a roadblock after a few weeks or months.

A few sessions in, the team feels that the only thing that’s changed is the look and feel of the meeting room. Having a careful look, one might find the meetings themselves are still much the same. Often people’s behaviour hasn’t changed, nor the effectiveness of the way of doing the meeting. As a result the outcome isn’t much different from before the Obeya was introduced. Team members are starting to question the time they spend in the meetings and start giving priority to other meetings again. Though mildly useful for sharing updates amongst each other, the real value add from Obeya is not experienced by the team. No real progression comes to light and after what looked like a promising start it feels that the Obeya is about to crash and burn unless something is fundamentally changed.

Sounds familiar? In that case you probably dove right into a common pitfall: to pay attention (right from the start) to only one of the three elements that make an Obeya room effective:

  1. the content & visuals (this is the ‘easy’ part),
  2. the way of working (accountability, rhythm, routine, etc),
  3. attitude and behaviour of the team members (this is the hardest part).

In essence, moving traditional management behaviour and way of working into an Obeya room will not add any real, long term value. Then all that the Obeya will be is just a hollow room with hopefully some nice looking visuals. Rather, to get the full benefits into your Obeya room, all three elements must be properly applied and continuously being improved upon. And in addition, if Obeya is to be implemented throughout an organisation, also another element comes to play: 4. Alignment and cascade.

Embarking on an Obeya journey really does require a paradigm shift for management team members: from traditional management to lean/agile management. That paradigm shift goes beyond looking at metrics on a wall in a room instead of in a report. So what does that paradigm shift mean exactly? Any Lean Leadership book will be a good way to start learning about the differences in-depth. In the meantime, any attempt to summarise the topic of Lean / Agile Leadership vs traditional management would be futile, but just to give a hunch:

  • Learning to improve performance in the long run, rather than maximising in the short run
  • Improving as part of the daily work, rather than an activity to undertake in spare time
  • Looking at the system as a whole (value stream), rather than fixing on individual problems
  • Understanding root cause, instead of shooting solutions from the hip
  • Focussing improvements on process performance, rather than output performance
  • Scientific thinking, instead of fire and forget
  • Visualising problems and addressing them early, instead of hiding them in reports and politics
  • Improving what we must, rather than what we can
  • Teaching members of your team the improvement capability, instead of telling them the solution

So any manager must be aware, willing and able to reflect on how they need to change their behaviour to attain an effective leadership style in the Obeya with their teams. In Lean and agile environments or autonomous teams where the operational teams have already embarked on this journey, the management layer is often lagging behind. Managers need to change their mind- and skillset to become effective at providing direction, alignment and plucking the benefits of the operational teams that have already made that shift.

Now let’s not go too deep into addressing elements B. and C. right now since it is too much to capture in this article. I like pragmatism and so here is a list of questions. Any team struggling with their Obeya can use this list for reflection. I expect it will potentially expose 80% of the problems you’re experiencing, and in answering them lead the way to understanding root cause and problem solving:

  1. Do we know why we are using an Obeya and what our goal with it is?
  2. Do we feel that everything that matters to our team (and no more than that) is visible and used in the room?
  3. Are the visuals sufficiently reflecting what we believe is actually going on in our organisation?
  4. Are the visuals showing us where our problems / impediments are and who is accountable to take action?
  5. Are we taking accountability for the performance and improvement of (the way we do) our work?
  6. Are we working on what we must improve?
  7. Are our improvements visibly related to our strategic goals?
  8. Is the rhythm of meetings allowing us to respond to problems early, fast and in a useful manner?
  9. Do we have an effective routine that helps us share valuable context and set actions to identify, understand and resolve impediments?
  10. Do we have an improvement method that supports scientific thinking?
  11. Is our coach helping us to become skilled improvers, and mentors for the members of our operational teams?
  12. Is our Obeya sufficiently connected to the rest of our organisation so we operate as one to add value for our customers and achieve our strategic goals?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to all these questions and still you feel you’re not progressing with your Obeya, please take a moment for honest reflection. Then read and answer the questions again while searching for a root cause.