Oct 7 2015
“Obeya” (大部屋) is Japanese for “Big room.” The term has been getting attention lately in the Lean community as a solution for service operations or project teams and is even conflated by some with production teams’ daily meetings on the shop floor, which don’t take place in a room other than the production shop itself.
On the other hand, the idea of bringing together in one room all the stakeholders in an issue, problem, or project to communicate face to face, find solutions and make decisions is not exactly new. It’s called a meeting, and those who wish to sound “Lean” without changing anything can call their meeting rooms “obeya.” Those who wish to dig deeper, however, find a more specific — and useful — concept, if not a panacea.
What is an Obeya?
What I would call an “obeya” has the following characteristics:
- It is a big room. It may or may not have doors, and even locks depending on the need to protect the equipment or the confidentiality of the work done inside.
- The room is dedicated to a project team of up to, say, 10 people for the duration of the project. According to Morgan & Liker’s account of Toyota Product Development, the team members retain their personal desks in the functional department they belong to. If a project has multiple phases, for example from concept to production ramp-up, the obeya may migrate with it, from a location in the R&D lab to a factory.
- If the team works on a product of a manageable size, at least one unit of the product is present in the room, with tools and measurement instruments as needed.
- The room has the standard equipment of a conference room, such as a white board to support informal discussions, and projector with a screen to work on information in electronic form.
- In addition, the walls are covered with status information, plans, schedules, layout drawings, and whatever charts the team finds useful.
It’s a big room, but not a gigantic one. Beyond facilitating communications and decision making, working in the obeya helps team members become mutually accountable as they leverage their complementary skills in pursuit of a common goal. In other words, it helps them coalesce as a team and perform at a much higher level than they otherwise would. The limit of this approach is that this group dynamic is observed with groups of 5 to 10 members, but not with groups of 50 to 100.
This picture, from the Toyota website, shows the obeya of the local Camry product launch team in Australia in 2006, with the 10-member team engaged by video-conference with the “global obeya” in Japan. The simultaneous launch of a car in many countries is not a project for a small team. This picture shows the obeya concept applied locally, where it can be, supplemented with IT for worldwide coordination. Note that the obeya contains a conference table but no desks.
Most examples you find online do not fit this pattern. The following pictures show practices that may be effective, but that I would not call “obeyas.”
Obeyas Versus Offices
Not every big room where multiple people work is an obeya. For perspective, it is worth comparing obeyas with common office layouts. When not on the road, I now work in a room full of books and computer equipment that is my private office. Before, I have worked in cubicle bullpens in the US, and at a gray metal desk in a row with no partitions in Japan, structures that are respectively standard in each country, regardless of the nature of the work.
As Tom de Marco noted in Peopleware, these designs are not selected based on any concern for productivity or quality. Their only goal is to provide the cheapest and most dense environment employees will put up with, regardless of whether their jobs are design engineering or customer service. It doesn’t matter that the former requires quiet concentration while the latter requires speaking on the phone all day.
Both cubicle bullpens and traditional japanese offices are set in big rooms, but it does not make them Obeyas. Contrary to these generic structures, an Obeya is designed specifically to support the activities taking place in it. Obeyas set up to develop a product, organize a conference, or recover from a natural disaster will look and operate differently.
Custom-Engineering Project Obeya
This engineering office layout is used in a US company that makes custom production equipment. Each order gives rise to an project requiring up to six engineers for about eight weeks. For each order, the engineering manager sets up a team that is dedicated to it and collocated in the kind of module shown below:
Desks with computers line the walls of this obeya, with visual management charts posted above. The members use the desks for individual tasks, but all it takes to call a team meeting is for them to swivel their chairs and face the table. There are no screens on the table, so that they actually face each other and interact.
In the US, collocating all the members of a team is an approach that is celebrated, if not widely practiced. This is, of course, the way startups work. All a startup has is one small team working on one project, and all it can afford in one room. There is, of course, a sample bias in the way this experience is romaticized, because publicity is all about the ones that succeed. When the companies grow to have hundreds of employees, they also grow departments, as well as the need to juggle multiple projects, which commonly get bogged down in procedures and multitasking. Management then tries to recapture the spirit of the early days by separating out small “intrapreneurial” teams that cut the red tape and achieve results by breaking the rules.
Well-known cases where this approach was used include the Data General MV-8000 computer in 1980, as told in The Soul Of A New Machine. It is also how the Macintosh computer was developed in the early 1980s, and the 1996 Ford Taurus. It certainly breaks down the barriers between functional departments, but it also has the following drawbacks:
- The team may be so caught up in its own vision that it loses touch with reality, resulting in, for example, products that won’t sell or are difficult to manufacture, even though representatives from marketing and manufacturing were included in the team.
- While project managers are happy to leverage the specialized skills of team members, they usually have no appreciation of what it takes to acquire and maintain these skills, for example through continuing education, technology watch, or participation in professional conferences.
- When projects end, the transition is often painful for team members. For two years, they have worked side by side intensely, without giving any thought to what might happen once the project ends. Psychologically, it can have as devastating an impact as a divorce, even when the project is a success.
That’s why many companies have a matrix organization, with, for example, engineers reporting “solid-line” to a project leader and “dotted line” to a functional manager who looks after their professional development. Many matrix organizations, however, struggle to find the right balance between these two types of relationships, a need that is explicitly acknowledged in Toyota’s approach.
Shop-floor project Obeya
This is a war room layout for a shop floor project. It is located as close as can be arranged to the target area and open towards it. The advantage of this approach is to keep the team on “Genchi Genbutsu.” It is not, however, without drawbacks:
- It may be noisy, making discussions and brainstorming difficult.
- Any equipment, such as cameras or computers, used by the team must be rugged enough for the shop floor environment.
- Securing it in the off hours in an environment that is open to hundreds of people may be a challenge.
- The project manager must decide how high a profile the project should have in the organization over time.
When the project is of a type that has not been done in this plant before, it is certain that the team will make mistakes. As a rule, mistakes are best made in private, and the team can better stand the glare of publicity once it is surefooted. The team may be reviewing several line layout options, some of which will be poor. Seeing a poor layout on the white board while walking by the team war room may unnecessarily distress an operator who would be affected by it. Once the team has settled on a layout, on the other hand, it makes sense to post it on the floor and solicit feedback on it.
Companies Not Using Obeyas
There are companies that are effective at running projects, yet have no use for obeyas. Many years ago, on a project with Intel, I was surprised by their policies. This is a company that was started by the inventor of the integrated circuit (IC), Bob Noyce, and was then run by Andy Grove, inventor of many of the processes used to make ICs and management thinker known for saying “only the paranoid survive.” It is the company that invented the memory chip and the microprocessor, and that still dominates the microprocessor market.
Yet its engineers worked in cubicle bullpens, and projects were explicitly prohibited from having any dedicated meeting space. Each office area had a block of small, windowless conference rooms in the middle, that could be reserved for up to two hours, and from which all traces of the meeting had to be removed at the end. Between meal times, the employee cafeteria was used for small, informal meetings, particularly with vendors, because they could access it without going through security.
For a team to meet, a project coordinator used a computer-based calendar system to find the first time when all participants were available. He then reserved a conference room on-line and all team members were automatically notified.
When a project team requested a war room on an exception basis, the request went all the way up to a vice president who denied it. In addition, all employees in the office area were required to file away all documents and lock up their desks before leaving every day, so that no company proprietary information was left lying around.
With these practices, one might expect this company’s project management to have been slow and inefficient, but in fact it was not. Possible explanations for this include the following:
- It was a prestigious company, able to attract top talent.
- Time management was rigorous, so that meetings started and ended on time, had agendas and published minutes in a standard format.
- It was a high technology company, with many project tasks being carried out by one person only.
The obeya is a tool, and management should not expect a team’s performance to improve just because it has one. The team and its leader must learn how to use it, and can be expected to become better at it over time.