“Lean is a way of thinking, not a list of things to do.”
-Shigeo Shingo

Working on a big project can waste resources in so many ways. Endless email chains, departments that don’t know how to work with each other, and a general inability to focus on a project over and above the daily whirlwind all cost us dearly.

Toyota’s Answer:

Developing a new car isn’t easy. In fact, it’s one of the most complex tasks a car company undertakes and can be a project-management nightmare of manufacturing, engineering, and safety issues. It’s a process that takes most car companies 36 months; Toyota does it in 20.

A pioneering champion of Lean, Toyota employs Obeya as one of the pillars of its production system. It’s a simple project-management method that saves time and money by adding one crucial element: dedicated space.

Room for Collaboration:

In Japanese, Obeya translates to “large room” or “war room.” It’s exactly that. An Obeya is a room dedicated to a project. It’s where important meetings happen, progress is posted, and all key decisions are made.

If you’re a Star Trek fan, think of it as the bridge. If you like military history, it’s your war room. Toyota calls in their brain, the center of the nervous system that is the Toyota Production System. It’s a space dedicated to focused communication about the project: information pours in, gets synthesized and digested, and then decisions are made and priorities selected from there.

Project over Silos:

Companies specialize in different things. Whether you want them to or not, silos emerge around those specialities so that each department can function at its best.

Silos function well when each is designed to contribute autonomously from the others. But when a project emerges that requires them to work together towards a common goal, the system can easily break down. Departmental priorities conflict with the project’s priorities and inefficiency runs rampant.

In the Obeya, the project rules. Silo politics are checked at the door, and in that space every stakeholder contributes their expertise to the overarching goal. It’s a simple, elegant, and difficult goal.

The Power of Visuals:

Kanban Board - Team looking at sticky notes on boardVisual aids like Kanban boards play a key role in Lean. When walking into the Obeya, you’ll get an instant idea, via the graphs and boards around you, of where the project is at. Plaster your walls with everything that shows your team what’s happening.

Obeyas eliminate the need for constant email updates, or hunting for status updates, or trying to get hold of other departments to find out where they’re at. Hours of time-waste get eliminated by making it visual for all.

Emerging Trend:

Obeyas have started to catch on, with big companies like Nike now employing it successfully. Business blogs and pinterest boards are full of ideas on how to assemble agendas and build visual walls to create the perfect collaborative space.

The kind of non-siloed communication fostered in an Obeya can be the gateway and driving force to implementing Process Improvement across your business. Keep it collaborative, set the silos and egos aside, and your Obeya can be what you need to get high-level buy-in for your Lean ambitions.