Obeya: Visual Factory + Teamwork

Rick Bohan
05.10.2016

I just came across a term I wasn’t familiar with: obeya.  (I think it’s pronounced o-bay-a, but I’m not certain.)  It’s used most often in  the term “obeya room”, which is a bit redundant given that “obeya” is Japanese for “big room”.  I became acquainted with the term in this Industry Week article…you should read it because it provides several examples as to just what an obeya is and how it works.

Turns out that obeya combines a couple of ideas that we’ve all been on board with:  collaboration and visual management.  The concept is that you put your most important visual indicators together in one room…then you talk about them every day.  Several times a day, in fact.

From the article:

“[The plant manager’s] first stop is the command center. “I can quickly — very quickly — determine if I’m on schedule everywhere or, if I’m not on schedule, where am I not on schedule and why am I not on schedule,” he says. Stop two is any place there is a deviation.”

Now, I’m going to pat myself on the back a bit here.  This is, nearly verbatim, what I’ve told all my clients is the primary goal of 5S and Visual Management:  to be able to tell, at a glance, whether or not a process or several processes are in control or not.

The real benefit of obeya, though, comes through deliberation and discussion of the data displayed by the visuals. Again, from the article:

“What we try to do is let the management team at the manager level lead the meeting,” Redelman says. “We want to encourage direct dialog between the managers so they take ownership of the condition.” The meeting is most effective, he adds, “when the managers and SMEs are gathered, speaking to each other, and the executive team has faded to the back and just offers suggestion when necessary or helps to prioritize the focus to wrap up the meeting.”

Discussions about lean and obeya frequently emphasize the human element, the need for individuals to physically interact with the data to take full advantage of an obeya’s promise. It’s a point Toyota emphasizes as well.”

Did you catch that?  It’s not so much that a company simply posts a bunch of visuals around the walls of a room.  It’s that managers and associates actually take time to look at and talk about the information on the charts.  And the conversations lead to actions.  This is a good example of the needed culture change that goes along with all lean methods.  My experience has been that it’s actually pretty difficult to create such straightforward change.   We’re just talking about regular, frequent, short meetings, after all.  Some companies start them, then they fizzle out for a variety of reasons.  Other companies never bother.  Both types of companies end up wondering why lean methods never really worked for them.  I guess they just figured that charts on the walls would, somehow, magically improve their operations.

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