Digital Obeya – business agility in ‘the new normal’​

Authors: Henk Venema & Vincent Snijder

Agile teams traditionally excel when their members are co-located and the work is physically visualised on walls and boards: sticky notes all over the place. Agile coaches always stimulated this way of working as the best way to build sparkling, high performing agile teams. Since the COVID-19 virus hit us, the overall experience is that the switch to remote working on team-level was relatively easy. The clear rhythm and routines facilitated a smooth transition towards a distributed way-of-working. But what about the visualisation on corporate level in so-called Obeya’s? Can we also easily transition this into a digital variant? 

Why Obeya

Obeya is ‘big room’ in Japanese. It’s a way of working for management first used by Toyota in Japan. An Obeya is a physical area where there is a visual link between strategy and operations. All relevant information becomes available in one space, arranged from strategic intention to proposals for improvement. Tim Wiegel, a Dutch Obeya-expert, says: “Through a rhythm and routine, the team discusses the right things at the right time in the best-known way possible. As such, meetings in the Obeya are supported by visuals and are short, effective and results oriented, instead of long, dusty and sometimes boring traditional meetings.” 

The Obeya and its rhythm and routines provide a great way to connect business strategy and the work performed in the teams. It creates transparency and speeds up decision-making. In larger organizations, a cascaded way of using Obeya can be used to effectively give strategic guidance to the whole organization and close the feedback-loop on progress and issues. Even the biggest organizations can mostly be covered with a cascaded 3-level Obeya-structure (Corporate, Division, Unit).

Primarily mindset, tools follow

The Obeya is sometimes called the war room, the organization performance room, the enterprise cockpit or the mission control tower. Every Obeya is unique: it’s a reflection of the specific work of a specific organization, unit or program. Therefore, it’s important to gather the right information for the job to be done. On why we do it (strategy), what we do (portfolio / roadmap), how we perform (financial / operational / commercial), how we innovate (improvement) and what hinders us (impediments and actions).

But this is just the foundation. The magic only happens when the people around have the right mindset. A mindset focussed on collaboration, transparency, continuous improvement, servant leadership and delivering value. This mindset ensures that everything works together in perfect harmony in the Obeya-process: the room, the information, the organization, the people, the meetings. Leading to a situation in which knowledge is shared in an effective and efficient way, teamwork is more integrated and mistakes are prevented. A situation in which the strategic connection is better anchored and decision-making is accelerated.

Obeya through the lens of COVID-19

We would like to look at Obeya through the lens of the COVID-19 situation.

1) React to disruption 

When a disruptive situation like the outbreak of COVID-19 occurs, it is essential to be able to react fast and clear. The whole organisation needs to shift course as soon as possible. In traditional organisations, it is often difficult to act decisive and swiftly change course because of long decision-making processes. The only route taken is the route of command- and control. Pure top-down without using the knowledge power within the organisation.

As mentioned, we believe that a cascaded way of using Obeya can be used to effectively give strategic guidance to the whole organization and close the feedback-loop on progress and issues. The Obeya rhythm and routines facilitate fast communication of changed strategic or tactical directions and enables the organisation to adapt quickly to a changing situation.

2) Transparency 

Transparency is vital to create the link between strategy (change course now!) and activities performed (Aye Aye Sir, new course set). Working with an Obeya closes the feedback-loop between strategy and planning on the one hand and progress and issues on the other hand. The transparency which is created by Obeya, improves and accelerates data- and fact driven decision making, needed to set a new course fast if needed.

3) The new normal – working remotely 

A lot of people don’t like the outlook of a situation in which the threat of a virus determines our way of living: they refuse to call such a situation ‘the new normal’. We completely understand this view but at the same time: we believe that the experience with the COVID-19 situation will definitely change the way we work in the future. The benefits of remote working are clear and many of us are surprised about the relative ease how we switched to this situation. So, we consider ‘the new normal’ as a situation in which employees work remotely in much higher proportions then before. This increases the need to have digital alternatives for the physical boards and sticky notes.

Digital Obeya

Forced by the COVID-19 situation, we (Henk & Vincent) were forced to convert the physical Obeya, that we were working with in the offices of our customers, towards a digital Obeya. We like to share our experience and best practice – and we invite you all to share yours!

The collaboration-tool we both used is MS Teams. After some trials (and errors 😊) we created a digital Obeya in MS Teams, as a separate channel of the MS Teams-environment for the unit in scope. In this channel, we created tabs for every ‘wall’ we had in the physical Obeya.

1) A Strategy Wall, showing the most important strategic themes, wildly important goals and must win battles for the unit. Technically in MS Teams this sometimes was a PDF which shows directly when you click on this tab. In other cases it was an Excel file with the strategic objectives, the must win battles for the next quarter and the OKR’s (Objective Key Result) that shows the target capability at the end of the next quarter.

2) A Portfolio Wall, showing a funnel of initiatives (Epics) from idea to delivery. Technically in MS Teams this is a Kanban-board in Planner, which is easy to use and visualize the portfolio. Every Epic links to an Epic-canvas (document) in the files-section of the Obeya. The linking can also be achieved to tools like JIRA where the epics are described combined with Confluence for the documentation. Here we have an advantage compared to a physical version, because in this digital environment we can directly link to underlying documents.

3) A Program Wall (Roadmap), showing a high-level plan of the Features on team-level for the current quarter. Technically in MS Teams this is link to the source in JIRA, in which we manage this Roadmap. Big advantage is that people can access this JIRA-roadmap through the digital Obeya in MS Teams, but also directly in JIRA. If the strategic themes and epics are also administered in JIRA the Program Wall can also facilitate a cascade of Obeya’s. On the corporate Obeya the Themes and Epics are visualised. On unit level the epics and features are shown. If needed drill-downs from Theme until Userstory can take place.

4) An Improvement Wall (Roadmap), showing a high-level plan of the topics we have identified to improve as a unit. For the current quarter this is planned per month, further in the future per quarter. These are the topics which make us able to deliver on our promises, experiment on innovations, win our must win battles and reach our wildly important goals. Technically in MS Teams this is a Kanban-board in Planner, with a column per month for the current quarter and a column per quarter for the future.

5) A Performance Wall (Dashboard), showing the actual status of the KPI’s we determined as a unit. Technically in MS Teams this is a link to a Power BI Environment showing dashboards for the different KPI’s. This is another advantage compared to a physical Obeya, because the digital one gives real-time insight into the status and gives the opportunity to drill-down on certain aspects.

Attention points

Is it that easy? Actually yes, but there are some attention points for using digital Obeya’s. As some organisations with distributed teams (onshore, offshore) already experienced, online cooperation requires specific facilitation. It is more difficult for a coach to act on things like body-language. What is also sometimes missing is the possibility to collaborate around a physical whiteboard. Fortunately, the tools industry quickly recognised this and is now offering tools like Whiteboard in MS Office, Miro or Mural.

Another important prerequisite for a digital Obeya is the quality of the data being used. As the data is directly shown from the source there is less to no room for human intervention. Take JIRA as an example. If an organisation intends to monitor for instance all the work done for specific prioritised epics, a digital Obeya relies on the fact that all the features and stories are properly linked to the right epic. This is not difficult but it needs a certain hygiene within the teams. Scrum Masters can play an important role there as the need and necessity for doing it is essential in order to align strategy (themes, epics) to execution in the teams (features, stories).

To summarise

Obeya is a powerful instrument to connect business strategy to the work performed in the teams. It creates transparency and speeds up decision-making. Since we consider ‘the new normal’ as a situation in which employees work remotely in much higher proportions then before, it is necessary to have digital alternatives for the physical Obeya.

We believe that a Digital Obeya, and its matching rhythm & routines, is a valuable alternative for a physical Obeya. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to the specific characteristics of online meetings, but doing so, the benefits of Obeya will be achieved, also in a remote way of working. In fact, we believe that a Digital Obeya has some striking advantages compared to the physical one, especially in the field of actuality and availability of the information and the possibility to drill down on specific topics.

About the authors

Vincent Snijder and Henk Venema are experienced professionals with a focus on business agility. Within Inspinity, including our extensive partner-network, we have built up a lot of experience around the set-up of Obeya, its rhythm & routines – both physical and digital.  The use of an aligned autonomy process combined with the power of Obeya are cornerstones to enable business agility. 

Vincent Snijder is an experienced leader. He embraces the Agile mindset to create sparkling organizations - adaptive to change and a great place to work.

Vincent is partner at Inspinity.

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