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Obeya Rooms for Transparency, Collaboration and Communication

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Carol McEwan and Greg Woods from iObeya about the use of Obeya spaces and the culture of transparency they encourage in organisations.

Key Takeaways

  • An Obeya space (physical or virtual) is a planning space used to visualize planning and communication
  • It's a way of improving and accelerating dialogue about what needs to get done across more a whole enterprise
  • Making work visible at this level requires organization wide trust and transparency 
  • Culture is an outcome, it's the collective outcome of the behaviors of the people in the organization
  • Effective communication can happen when you take complex data or complex information and you create a simple visualization out of it


Introductions [00:20]

Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ engineering culture podcast. Today I'm sitting down with Carol McEwan and Greg Woods, Carol and Greg are from iObeya. First of all, welcome Carol and Greg. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Carol McEwan: Thanks for having us.

Greg Woods: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Shane Hastie: What's this Obeya thing? It's a term we're starting to see bandied around a bit. But for the benefit of our audience who might not have come across it or who are just seeing the word. What does it mean? Where is it from?

What is an obeya space? [00:53]

Greg Woods: Obeya comes from the Japanese term for large room. And this large room concept was developed by Toyota in the nineties, as they were developing the Prius, they were looking for a new way of visualizing work, visualizing communication, and understanding that they had to come up with something very innovative in a shorter time span and under a budget crunch as well. They were looking to find a new way of working and so they develop the Obeya space and sometimes folks refer to that as the war room and it's a way of visualizing work so that people can stand in front of the wall or stand in front of the board and have a conversation about what's happening there. So it's a way of improving and accelerating dialogue about what needs to get done.

Shane Hastie: How does that differ from something that many of our audience will be familiar with the scrum board or the Kanban board?

Carol McEwan: Yeah, so it's not a whole lot different, it's just walls across an enterprise. It takes it up a notch, right. So we know at a team level a scrum board, or we know the team level, a Kanban board. But think about, as you scale, how do you know how you have work dependencies across a team or a team of teams. How can you then start to visualize that work to know, am I taking on too much or am I taking on too little or, oh, I didn't know that team over there was working on X when I'm actually working on it as well. So maybe we can work together on that. Think about scaling your practices beyond just the board for your team.

Greg Woods: The Obeya may include other walls, such as a visualization of, if you're looking at the enterprise level, all a visualization of a strategic plan and some of the KPIs that are associated with that and then, as Carol was talking about, getting more detail into the execution of work, Kanban also comes from the Japanese terminology of card. It's a trigger. It's a visual cue to know essentially when to move work from one place to another, or when in the case of physical space, a bin might be empty and needs to be refilled or a bin is full and needs to be moved to the next workstation. So whether you're working in the physical space with a card system like that or virtually with a Kanban board or a scrum board, it's that visual cue to make progress, to continue executing the work that needs to get done.

Shane Hastie: Greg, you mentioned in the conversation we had before, that your background in particular is lean. So how does this Obeya support lean thinking and lean ways of working in organizations?

The application of lean ideas through obeya [03:43]

Greg Woods: That's a great question. So lean at the heart of it is ensuring the customer gets what they want when they want it and at the price that they want it. So it's all about connecting the dots and creating a seamless workflow from the point of your supplier, to your customers. So your classic kind of SIPOC diagram, suppliers, inputs, outputs, processes, and customers. And so this is all connected through visual cues. As I was mentioning about the Kanban, these are the triggers of how do we make sure work progresses as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Shane Hastie: And Carol we've known each other for a while, but we've come from a very strong agile background. Is there anything specific from an agile perspective that would add to that explanation?

Obeya supports agile approaches [04:31]

Carol McEwan: Absolutely. I'm learning a whole lot more from Greg since I joined iObeya, and then from my knowledge of the agile space, I think what we're finding is this difference between business agility or doing agile and being agile. Also what practices you are using as a practitioner in the work that you're doing, those lines between agile and lean are getting a little fuzzier as are going along, I believe Kanban is a great example because some people don't know in the agile space that Kanban came from lean, right? And so there's a lot of practices that we're doing in the agile space that came from lean that have come across to agile. And I see that same thing happening with the Obeya rooms and being able to tie that understanding for the individual to see how is the work that I am doing adding value to the organization's expectations or their strategy.

If I make this decision down here, I know based on what I'm seeing in the Obeya room, that that decision will trickle all the way up and add value, or not. Sometimes decisions change and in agility we want to be agile, right? We want to be able to make decisions fast and change appropriately as the need arises. And this is an opportunity in an Obeya room to do that. And that's what excited me so much about joining this organization was because of not looking at lean or not looking at agile so much, but looking at how can we be effective as an entire enterprise and have transparency from top to bottom and bottom to top,

Shane Hastie: I can see a room full of various boards helping but what does it take at a cultural perspective to make that happen?

The culture changes needed to make this effective [06:22]

Greg Woods: That's a great question. I think Carol hit on it just a moment ago and it's the notion of transparency as once you stick something up on a wall, it's there for people to see whether it's in the physical space or in the digital space. So from a cultural perspective, certainly leaders need to be comfortable with the fact that they're sharing information that maybe they weren't sharing before. And by sharing some of that information, they may get challenged on the information, or people may ask questions about decisions being made. So there's a degree of comfort or confidence or both that leadership needs to have when they start to share information more openly like that. And it brings a greater degree of accountability, not only for the person say whether they're part of the project team, trying to advance a task on a project or a developer writing a piece of code, but it's a two-way street.

So leaders are going to be held accountable for, of things on their boards as well. And they're visible and they're out there. So from a cultural perspective, really being able to have that comfort and confidence to be able to stand in the space of, we're putting it all out there and it's transparent and we need to be able to have open and honest conversations about those things. So Key skills are your active listening skills, being able to give effective feedback, listening to effective feedback, and all of those pieces play into the kind of culture that transforms an organization when you make things transparent throughout the organization.

Carol McEwan: Yeah, and I couldn't agree more. And I also think the other big thing is trust, right?

Greg Woods: Absolutely.

Leadership buy-in and support is not enough – active leadership engagement is crucial [07:59]

Carol McEwan: Trust huge. And I like to go back to, the state of agile report, right? And if you take a look at the state of agile report, the culture is always a big thing. Culture is king when you're trying to do this kind of stuff, but they said that in the 14th state of agile report that a new choice this year is that there's not enough leadership participation in order to help with this. So I think you don't need leadership buy-in and support. You need leadership participation and engagement. And I was so excited when I saw that report because I know it's true. We can't say do as I say, it's do as I do. So if you're going to have a good, transparent wall of walls to walk, everybody has to participate in that. And it does open up that transparency and it just brings to light the decisions that are being made throughout the organization. So I think mind shift, change, mindset change. That's what's going to help us get there too.

Greg Woods: And I think we need to remember that culture is an outcome. It's a collective outcome of the behaviors of the people in the organization. I always wonder about initiatives that are out there to "change the culture". When the initiative is really about changing the behavior. And then however you change the behavior, whatever behaviors are enforced or reinforced or encouraged, that's the culture that you're going to get. Culture is an outcome. It's not just a magic kind of state of being. It's what you do day in, day out. It's how you talk to your people day in, day out. It's how leaders treat their people day in, day out. That's what culture is. And that's where it comes from.

Shane Hastie: Johan Rothman has said to me on more than one occasion, that culture is the lowest common denominator of the behaviors that you accept in the organization. What are the behaviors that we need to bring in to start to embody this transparency, to make something like an Obeya effective as a communication tool?

Behaviours that reflect and influence culture [10:02]

Greg Woods: I think one of the classics that you go back to is Stephen Covey-ism of "seek first to understand", instead of judging what you see on the wall seek to understand why is that on the wall, help me understand that what that card is telling me and seeing if a card is still in the to do column instead of in the progressing column, or if it's got data in there that says it's "late”,  jumping to the conclusion of it's late and seeking a punishment behavior mindset, shifting to the, ask the question first, seek first to understand, why is that card late? Or why is that card not progressed? And more specifically from a leadership perspective, it's asking the question, if something's not going, like it's expected to, what can I do to help? What support can I provide in order to help my team progress. Moving from that place of sitting in judgment of why something hasn't happened to the place of support to help make sure that it does happen.

Carol McEwan: Couldn't agree more, Greg, I like to tell a quick story about a BVIR (a big visual information radiator). That's really also how in the agile space, we might suggest similarity to a visual management system or an Obeya room. But I was part of an opportunity where we were taking agility into a school and teaching children and teachers. And this was a school that these kids needed a little bit more support than maybe a mainstream channel school. And they thought they put the marks up on the wall. Well, let me tell you that didn't go down very well. However, when they stopped and thought about it, and they iterated and they inspected and adopted to the situation. What they did for the next semester was they put a BVIR, or they put all marks up on the wall, but they started every single child at exceeds expectations.

They all started at a hundred percent. So now what happened when a child, hey I'm a hundred percent and I'm doing great. And I don't want that slip. And I don't want anybody else to see that slip. So what happened was some children did obviously, but rather than the other kids berating them for having bad grade, they said, gosh, what happened? How can we help? Hey, I'm good in math. Can I help you? Hey, I'm good in something else, can I help you? And it became a team effort and they swarmed to help each other. And I see that same thing happening in teams in this situation too. Iinformation is not there to berate people. It's so there to figure out where we can help the best in situations. So make sure we're providing the right information. It's not all the information, it's the right information, so that we can make the right decisions to support the right people at the right time to get the right value. At the end of the day.

Greg Woods: I love that story that makes me think of one of the lean truism out there or phrases that we often hear is, you attack the problem or you attack the process, not the person you go after the piece that is objective. I have objective data about how my process is performing or marks in this case, and you're not attacking the person, but you go after the process that's been created, that's an outcome that isn't the outcome that you want. So let's go look at that. Let's not look at Joe, the operator or Sally, the student let's figure out how do we really go after that, that we can attack, what can we change.

Carol McEwan: Right.

Shane Hastie: Building on that. There's something intriguing there in the way that information was communicated. So there was an interpretation layer on top of the raw data. How, as leaders, do we figure out the right interpretation for that?

The importance of representing the data in a way that is useful and meaningful [13:44]

Carol McEwan: I think Greg hit on it a little bit ago. We can all jump to conclusions, but we have to seek to understand. We have to learn. We all have our own personal biases about things. And when we see one thing, we might jump to conclusion of something else. But when the information is presented, it's only an opportunity to have conversation. And you cannot say based on that data, this is it. You have to be able to use these Obeya rooms as an open opportunity for conversation to be had. And that's the power of Obeya rooms and opening up that level of communication. Because I think if you go back to the state of agile report, but I think one of the other things that's an issue is communication between leadership and the people doing the work, or when you are trying to align strategy with execution, how are you doing that? How are you communicating those things and making sure that it's only a level to open up a line of communication.

Greg Woods: And I think from a visual management perspective, that communication is when you take complex data or complex information and you create a simple visualization out of it. I like to say that the graph is the start of the conversation. When you look at the trend line and if it's going up and up is good, then starting the conversation with what do doing well that's got our trend line going in the right direction, or conversely, if the trend line is going down and that's a representation of, that's not exactly what we look to be achieving, what's happening here? What's happened over time. Let's go investigate, what's driving performance in the wrong direction. So being able to build on what Carol was saying, communication, and can start with that visual representation and that visual representation is the trigger for the conversation that needs to be had. How do we keep getting better? Or how do we course correct and get back to where we need to be?

Shane Hastie: So we've been talking about the physical Obeya spaces. iObeya is a virtual representation of that. How does this translate into the virtual space and how do we get the same feeling of absolute transparency that you get from being able to walk into a room and look around the walls? How does this translate into the virtual world that so many of us work in today?

Working with virtual Obeya spaces [16:07]

Greg Woods: That's a great question. And that really strikes at the heart of how the company got started. A major auto manufacturer came to us and said take our flip charts and our sticky notes and put it into a digital environment. And the premise of how iObeya is structured is taking and basing the digital interaction on rooms. We call them rooms and boards. So you can step into a room or you can have permission to access a particular room. And then the boards are much like you'd see either on a wall or the flip charts that are hung in the physical space. And we have dividers that you can envision a corner of the room is a different color. So your left hand wall is on the left hand side of your room, and you've got your strategy.

And then there's divider, which could mimic your physical corner of the room, and then you go into the next section of the room. So we've tried to create a structured space, just like the physical space. So it's much, much easier to adapt and adapt into that digital space because the essential look and feel is like the physical space.

Carol McEwan: And one thing that I'd love to explain too, is the fact that you could think about the advantages of having a digital room over a physical room, right? Like sticky notes don't fall off the wall, or you don't have to roll up your program board because you got to move it to another room because you got too big. You could expand that as well. Or now you don't even have to rewrite a card because you could synchronize a card and share them across rooms. So the value that this virtual room brings, it's fun to work in too. So it's unique, it's flexible. And your imagination is the only thing that limits you sometimes because it is it's really fun to work in. So it brings an added element to the opportunity.

Asynchronous collaboration over time and distance [18:02]

Greg Woods: I think another couple of key points there to build on what Carol is saying is, is when you're in that space, it's the ability to collaborate. Not only at the same time. So Carol and I could be working in the same digital space at the same time or since we're located in different time zones. And I've got a client that I'm working with, that they have a facility on the West Coast (USA), a facility in South Korea and a facility in Singapore, obviously different time zones, but they're all in the same digital space so they can work on boards. What we like to call is asynchronously.

So if the folks on the west coast make a change to the board, when the folks wake up the next day in Singapore, they can see the changes and they can continue work. So it's a fantastic way of being able to engage your top talent in the organization, no matter where they are on the face of the earth, they can log in from New York. They can log in from Denver. They can log in from Singapore. They can log in from Paris. And if you can manage all those time zones to get folks together at the same time, you can do that. Or you can literally pass the work around the world and people can be in the same space, working on whatever needs to get done. And quite frankly, the work never has to stop because it's always there. It's always present. It's always live and you can always interact with it.

Shane Hastie: If we can take this to an example that will hopefully resonate with our audience. If we think of an organization that's got a number of software engineering teams working either in parallel on single products or on complimentary products, streams of work, what would an Obeya space look like for them? What are some of the things that would be up on those walls, whether they're virtual or physical?

What an Obeya space for a software organisation could look like [19:45]

Greg Woods: The basic foundational piece is the board. So whether, physical, we might equate that to like a flip chart or maybe a whiteboard in our space. That's a digital board as well as we have your basic sticky notes or what we also like to call cards that have more detailed information in them. So a description of the task, an owner, a due date, maybe a checklist of things that need to get accomplished. And not only do we have the capability of putting up these sticky notes onto a blank board, but we can have both what we call a static background, where you could have different images on there. So just as an example, the first one pops to mind is if you want to do an empathy map with your team, we can create the static background. We have a background catalog that includes an empathy map.

And so boom, right there got your map to work with. And then you can operate on top of it. As we talked about before the same sort of process you can engage with Kanban boards and we have Kanban boards that are dynamic so that we can actually count the number of cards in a particular column, whether it's your, to do in process or done, however you structure your Kanban and set up a particular amount of whip in each of these columns as well. So if you only want five tasks in your to-do column and you've got six tasks listed that whip box or that whip visualization turns red. So you've got a number of different ways that you can actually interact with and design your workflows and design how you're interacting with your information. And you can even create custom backgrounds as well. So it's not only what's available in the existing catalog, but if you have a particular way that you like to manage your work or your workflows, those are available to be customized for yourself.

So there's a whole host of different ways that you can manage your teams, your projects, your work. We like to say that we're a framework. We don't say that you have to do lean a particular way and you have to use these boards in this order and do it this way. That's not our design. Our design is a framework with a powerful toolkit. Then you're able to manage the work, how you want to. So what would something look like? Imagine how you're doing it today, just doing it in a digital space.

Carol McEwan: Or your retrospectives or problem solving workshops.  Also the voting, the voting is really cool that I've seen, different ways of doing it anonymously and those kind, you get to vote. But I remember doing some problem solving workshops where people were always afraid to vote on something if their leader had gone up and voted already. So the opportunity to vote anonymously and then see all of them collected all at once and things like that even makes it that much more powerful. But like Greg said too, just the way that became was to say, let's just take everything that was analog and make it digital first and then make it better from there. But those are some of the things that I think make it special.

Using virtual spaces helps encourage diversity and inclusion [22:38]

Greg Woods: I appreciate what Carol's saying there too, from a voting perspective and what that means to the group dynamic and how do you bring out different ideas? And so I think we're just touching on the tip of the iceberg here, when it comes to, how do we more effectively facilitate conversation? How do we bring more diversity and inclusion into the digital space? If you're not seeing what the other person looks like or what their position is in the organization, you can certainly be much, much more inclusive by saying, we're all contributing here. It doesn't matter where you're from, what language you speak, what you look like, however you look to slice it. I think there's an element of being more powerful or being able to create a more powerful environment that really contributes to diversity and inclusion as we move forward.

Carol McEwan: And the one other thing that I'd like to mention too, is you really get to, to see the incremental improvement that you've made along the way, because now you have a record, a source of truth that is digital now that you can keep and you could see the improvements across, whereas before you just kind of know, oh yeah. Remember how it used to be back in the day. Now you can actually look at this and say, look at that. Look how far we've come. You know, last year we were here and now we're here and that's pretty powerful. I think as a team to celebrate those successes that they've made. And we all know that's what we makes people want to get up and go to work every day to feel like their part of the team and part of the success and the value that they're bringing to the organization.

Greg Woods: I really appreciate what you're saying there, because that brings us back full circle to the culture conversation. Celebration and recognition are keys to creating the type of culture, positive environment that organizations need and want to create to help make sure that they're engaging their folks and getting the best out their folks.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much. Some really interesting points and some good advice in there. Carol, Greg, if people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Carol McEwan: That's a great question. They can find

Greg Woods: And I'm just gwoods@iObeya,com and certainly folks are welcome to check out our website, which is of course just

Shane Hastie: Thanks so much.

Carol McEwan: Thank You.

Greg Woods: Thanks for having us, Shane.



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