Want to set up an Obeya? Take your time!


In Europe we’ve got the clock, but in Africa they’ve got the time. Well, that’s what they say anyway. That may well be true, but managers are confronted with the same issues wherever they go. For instance, just take the Management Team of Restless Development Uganda. They were so busy with their day-to-day operational tasks that they had lost sight of what leadership should look like. So one of the things we did for them was to set up an Obeya. The ability to do so will help you to continually focus on higher goals. 

Through House of Sharing, we share our knowledge with non-commercial organisations all over the world. That’s how my colleague Jasper and I ended up sitting across the table from Catherine Rodgers, Hub Director for Restless Development Uganda. One of her questions was about the MT’s focus. How could they remain focused on their strategic goals amidst the hectic rush of their daily work? In fact, this does appear to be a universal issue.

An Obeya enables you to see your strategic goals. Literally.

We started by looking at the higher goal. What were the mission and vision of Restless Development, and then which strategies should we use to achieve this higher goal? It was good to establish these things afresh.

Next question: how can you prevent your focus on strategic goals from getting lost again in the frenzy of everyday work? To find the answer, we decided to set up an Obeya. Obeya is Japanese for ‘large room’ and that’s exactly what it is: a physical room where you literally hang up strategic goals, performance and ideas for improvement on the wall.

Setting up an Obeya is a question of trying things out and then continuously improving them

The way in which you set up an Obeya differs from one organisation to the next. It’s a question of discussing things, trying them out and continuously improving them. At Restless Development, we simply hung large sheets of brown paper on the wall. On 4 of these, we wrote out a strategy, under which we set out the progress in the form of graphs, followed by the last part which consisted of 3 initiatives to make the relevant strategy a bit smaller and more manageable.

A 5th sheet served as a cockpit: it provided a view of the organisation’s mission and vision, and of the KPIs that the team wanted to influence by means of the strategic goals. For example, the number of collaborations with organisations that focused on the same target audience, the funds that donors had committed to providing, and the number of alumni engaged in an active leadership role.

The way of working in the Restless Development Obeya

Restless Development’s MT members now come together in the Obeya each week in order to discuss one of their 4 strategic goals. The central question is always the same: how are we doing with regard to this specific goal? And what are we actually going to get to grips with this week in order to get a step closer to achieving it? The participants brainstorm about all sort of initiatives that they could take, and determine who should take charge of which one.

This approach fits in perfectly with another request from Restless Development, which was to generate more creativity and innovation. The Obeya is the place to share knowledge with one another and to develop a new approach. And as you can see from looking around you, this is of course completely in line with the organisational strategy.

Want to take your first steps? Take your time!

MTs in Uganda encounter exactly the same issues as their colleagues in the Netherlands. For me, that was a real eye-opener. And yet, there was one important difference. The Restless Development team took two weeks off from their usual work to go down this pathway. Two whole weeks. In the Netherlands, it proves very awkward in practice to make managers available for longer than half a day. That makes sense of course, but you can get a lot further if you dare to spend two weeks getting to where you need to go.

So if you really want to cover a lot of ground along whichever pathway you choose to go down, do it the African way: say goodbye to watching the clock and hello to taking your time!

Read more here about the project with Restless Development or contact Laura on [email protected]

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About the author

Adventure, a challenge and humor are important ingredients to me. Helping organisations and their employees to go further through innovation and continuous improvement is what drives me.

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