A visual management process, in the context of lean, represents a suite of behaviors, practices, and norms that can aid organizations in speed of decision making and improved outputs, this is well known, what is less appreciated is the role it can play in culture change. How might a visual management process contribute to culture change, you might be asking? The short answer is it provides a context and routine to practice desirable behaviors. If your company’s culture is characterized by silos, fractions, and communication woes—a visual management process has something to offer. It is a process of reviews with key attendees that leads to data driven decision making, clear priorities, and accountability through public commitments and visual tracking.
Toyota is credited with deploying a visual management process for product development to ensure robust communication, quick decision making, and cross functional planning. Often called an Obeya room, other common names include: war room, work room, discovery room, sharing room, and visual management room (Aasland 2012). The term a company uses is their prerogative and the actual translation of Obeya is “big room.” This translation summarizes the use of a dedicated space to house data and information and enable easy reference during regular team meetings with standard times, agendas, and tools.
For complex and cross functional business processes such as strategy implementation, product development, operations management, and improvement efforts organizations are typically plagued by poor communication, lengthy decision-making processes, and siloed thinking between functions. A visual management process helps overcome these challenges through:
The effectiveness of a visual management process is rooted in the disciplined execution of a system of communication, a set of expectations regarding reporting by exception and the practice of cross functional attendees and leadership setting a specific time and location for focused reporting, problem solving, and issue resolution. The structure through expected norms helps introduce desirable cultural behaviors:
During visual management meetings information and data is visually displayed for participants. This allows all attendees to check the current status—target to plan. Through a focus on status, those items that are “red” meaning there is a gap to plan, issues are identified and resolved quickly. Problem solving is fueled by reliance on data and broad communication and commitment to countermeasures (actions to be taken to get back on track). As meetings have cross functional attendance all parties are informed on decisions, interdependencies, and required actions in real time by leadership.
A visual management process also drives healthy accountability to priorities. Most employees have experienced the tug of war of priorities; a visual management process helps this challenge through a clear focus on the key priorities that are visually posted for all to see. Tied to the priorities is monitoring of progress, status, and accomplishment of targets. This visual approach makes both priorities and commitments visible—there is power in public commitment of team countermeasures and actions. This visible process and public sharing of countermeasures also enables the teams to voice the need for cross functional support when there are interdependencies.
Like many lean tools and methods, this process is deceptively simple as it is far more than hanging content on a wall. If the content is not paired with disciplined meetings that follow an effective agenda, have appropriate attendance, exercise collaborative problem solving, use data to drive decisions, and make and keep commitments the “big room” will be just that a “big room” and not live up to it is potential as a driver of performance and culture. Many clients struggle to enact effective culture change but a healthy visual management process with outlined behavioral expectations becomes an opportunity to practice and perfect desirable norms that have broad application throughout the business.
This point is articulated by Nike’s senior director of Nike Europe, Fred Mathijssen he describes, “We also discovered that decisions were made more quickly and confidently in the Obeya, since people were immersed in the information, they needed to explore alternatives, ask questions, and formulate hypotheses … In such an environment, people demonstrated that they could come together, tackle tough challenges, and move the ball down the field towards the goal line” (Mathijssen 2014). What is striking about Methijssen’s reflection is the emphasis he places on people and behavior, the setting helped to cultivate desirable levels of collaboration and problem solving.
A robust visual management process does not happen overnight, nor does culture change, but it is useful to see how a visual management process and culture change are co-mingled, as it is a forum to practice new behaviors, communication processes, and decision-making norms. Like most things, if you put in the work the payback comes. The payback of visual management processes include: teamwork, higher trust, process predictability, operational stability, and problem solving.
Mathijssen, Fred. “How Nike created a successful lean IT Obeya B”. PlanetLean para 17. 11 December 2014. Retrieved 27 October 2021.
Aasland, Knut and Detlef Blankenburg. “An analysis of the uses and properties of the Obeya”. Conference Paper. June 2012. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261021074_An_analysis_of_the_uses_and_properties_of_the_Obeya
Emily Altimare, PH.D., Principal