How to improve leadership with Obeya

By Published On: May 7, 2021

Exclusive tips from Author Tim Wiegel on how to set up an effective Obeya. Improve your leadership system through this educating video

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How to improve leadership with Obeya

There’s probably a lot more potential in your leadership team than you’re getting out of it right now. Where self-managing teams, Lean and Agile working have been trending topics over the past few years, these movements mainly focus on the operational teams. But what about the teams at leadership level? Can they keep doing what they’ve always done?

“We miss the opportunity to see leadership as a craft that all leaders could practice together while systematically creating rhythm, synergy and coherence throughout the organization.”

The top 3 improvement areas for Leadership Teams

Most teams that I encounter think they need to improve the way they work. I regularly ask them what they want to improve, these are the most commonly heard things. They want:

  1. fewer strategic plans that remain vague and get lost in the archive after which we get bogged down in day to day operations, but more visible results in the short and long term
  2. less working in silos, but more collaboration as a team on common goals with clear responsibilities
  3. fewer meetings that feel ineffective with few decisions and actions, but more with structure, discipline and focus on results

What is the function of leadership in an organization and why is it difficult?

Each person or team with a leadership role at any level in the organization basically has three things they need to do right, regardless of how they do it (leadership style):

  1. Establish a goal that we want to achieve with the organization
  2. Ensuring that the capabilities are in place to achieve that goal
  3. Ensuring that the organization has a plan to realize the goal as effectively as possible (together)

Easy as this may sound, in practice it turns out doing just that is pretty difficult, also because of the problematic symptoms mentioned above. In my recent book, Leading with Obeya, four main reasons are identified that make leading organizations difficult:

  1. The complexity of organizations and the world around them makes them difficult to control
  2. Our brains constantly tend to make errors of thought (bias) that influence our decisions in an already complex world
  3. Based on our dominant management practices, we are used to providing individuals with objectives to chase (often in the short term). This leads to competition between teams and departments pursuing self-interest rather than stimulating coherent and collaborative working across the organizational system.
  4. We see leaders as individuals who each lead the organization with their own working methods, plans and priorities. We miss the opportunity to see leadership as a craft that all leaders could practice together while systematically creating rhythm, synergy and coherence throughout the organization.

Looking around in organizations, people in a leadership or management position are intelligent, well intentioned individuals, often working 50+ hours a week and thus spending a great deal of their personal time and energy into their jobs. But without dealing with these challenges, the individual efforts are not as effective as they could be. And that’s a shame, given the investment and dedication that many leaders and managers put into their jobs.

Changing your leadership game with Obeya

If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always had. With this knowledge, Toyota developed the Prius in the late 1990s with the help of Obeya. The result at the time: a car twice as economical than any comparable car on the market, affordable and the most successful hybrid car in the world. And oh yes, it was also developed much faster than comparable cars at that time. That was only possible by really making things different and not just thinking differently. What Toyota has achieved in their large room is the extension and of old habits by implementing new, more effective ways of working.

Leading with Obeya Reference Model

Then what’s so effective about this way of working with Obeya? Two elements form a major part.

  1. The first to stand out when you see an Obeya is the visualization. People in the Obeya can make optimal use of their strongest sense: the eyes. This creates insight, overview, prevents errors of thought, ensures that you always have the relevant information at hand and helps you to set priorities while uncovering obstacles and problems. Toyota has been working with visual management since the middle of the last century and is very good at this. To get close to that level you will have to practice for a while, but nonetheless embarking on this practice will have instant value.
  2. Even more important than presenting information on the wall in an attractive way is the continuous practice of effective habits. If you don’t use what’s on the wall in a good way, the investment of hanging up in the first place also yields little. That is why it is important to include the practice of the principles and ways of thinking in your daily practice. That is why there is a fixed meeting routine in the Obeya that helps us put good ideas and principles into practice effectively on a daily basis. At first it feels uncomfortable and it’s difficult because you do things differently than you were used to. But that’s a good sign: you’re learning something new. After a while it starts to become a habit and you will find it feels better and easier and it becomes more and more clear to you why you do things this way.

In Leading with Obeya you can read about the visualizations and the principles that guide effective behavior patterns in the big room. The book also contains a reference model, which shows what you should expect to see on the walls of an Obeya for leading your organization, but also what principles for thinking & acting are expected of the team. These principles are represented as a foundation in the wall with the principle of rhythm & routine as an entrance door of the Obeya.

Working with Obeya is a way to maximize human leadership potential at all levels of your organization. Leading with Obeya explains how to do just that.

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