How to make a room that's the smartest person in the room
A couple of years ago, I led a consulting team immersed in the workspaces of one of the world's largest automotive manufacturers. We collected millions of points of data that proved again that communications among people, even among team members working on the same project or program, significantly diminished or disappeared with distance. We found that team members may not even know each other if some of them were on separate floors in the same building or in separate buildings on the same campus.
The conventional approaches to workplace planning and design in this company and many like them actually interfered with the ability of people to organize as teams around projects with the mission to design and engineer the products shaping the next generation of the auto industry. The practice of assigning people engaged in product development to corporate standard workplace environments organized around the corporate diagram and with the limited choices of office, cubicle and conference room was eroding the performance of the company.
The New Technical Workplace
Insights from projects like these and from our other research have informed the five principles of what we call The New Technical Workplace. The New Technical Workplace is a framework to appreciate that the work of people in product development and other creative pursuits is a hybrid of other forms of work. This kind of work has been overlooked in most of the chatter about the modern workplace over the past couple of decades. (We'll expand on this in future newsletters.)
One of the five underlying attributes of The New Technical Workplace is Presence. It's an attribute that is rich with layers of meaning and value. But at its simplest, it is a concept reflecting the power of getting everybody who has a stake in a project or program in the same place.
Those stakeholders are, at least, representatives of the many disciplines and skills required now to design and build complex and integrated products such as the autonomous vehicle. In the best cases, these spaces may now also accommodate the presence of customers, vendors and suppliers from partner organizations, and even representatives of the community and the world at large.
The obeya, or “big room,” is one example of a spatial concept that augments, activates and amplifies this principle. The obeya provides a multi-disciplinary team of people a workspace with vast amounts of information in a shared and project-dedicated setting. In it, friction is removed from knowledge transfer, and speed and accuracy enter decision making.
We were pleased to see the concept validated and finally implemented in the executive and product development team spaces at Ford. When Kumar Galhotra became Ford’s president of North America , he created obeyas to bring together communication, manufacturing, purchasing and customer-service teams that previously worked in different buildings.
Even more interesting, he transformed Ford's executive offices into a cluster of obeyas that he called Franchise Rooms, named and dedicated to each of the company's product lines. The Automotive News recently took a tour of these spaces. Here is a segment of their report.
There are 13 rooms, one for each vehicle line. Galhotra and his team spend an hour in each room beginning every Wednesday, working their way through Ford’s portfolio from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a one-hour break. The meetings routinely spill over into Thursday, and then the group starts each Friday with two hours at Ford's fledgling campus in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, where work on electric and autonomous vehicles is being concentrated. Afterward, leadership team members meet back at headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., to review whether they reached their goals for the week.
Inside the franchise rooms, sheets of data cover the walls, detailing every aspect of a particular model with brightly colored charts and graphs. Each vehicle has a thermometer that’s filled in to depict how close it is to annual profitability goals for each model year through 2020. Some rooms have newspaper ads for competitive models tacked up.
And most rooms don’t have chairs. The roughly 20-person team that meets each week prefers to discuss the issues standing around a center table…
One recent Wednesday, the team was cooped up in the Expedition room trying to figure out why dealers were complaining about low inventory, even though the SUV’s days-supply level was normal. After looking at the data, the team determined that Expeditions built with 8-inch touch screens were turning fast, while those with 4-inch screens stayed on dealer lots much longer.
Galhotra’s team immediately decided to stop installing 4-inch screens and build more Expeditions with the 8-inch screens.“We were able to isolate the issue and get the right product to the customer," Galhotra said. "The whole thing happened in a one-hour period."
The obeya concept has also been replicated in other places at Ford. For example, Hua Thai-Teng, Ford's EVP of Product Development, gathers teams in “Energy Rooms" to work together on product programs. These are places where designers, engineers and marketers come together in new spaces devoted to singular Ford products to go over product plans.
In a recent workshop, they gave Thai-Tang three options mocked up with cardboard for a door hinge on the 2020 Bronco. The Detroit News observed –
The employees told him which of the three worked best, and the team decided to move forward with a design in minutes. That process would have taken weeks, and used more expensive materials to ‘design’ the hinge options, in the past.
In our practice, the obeya is frequently a room in a room, an iconic shape in the landscape of the floor with inside and outside surfaces richly covered with information and story-telling.
In come cases the obeya is an entire floor, a true “big room," with the information that teams use snaking its way through the floor with display screens, glass marker walls, drawing pin-ups, video-conferencing screens, reference surfaces, parts displays 3-D printers, and other resources needed by leading creative product development teams.
In every case, however, we think the physical trumps the digital.
That is, designed appropriately, the room becomes the smartest person in the room.