Systems thinking with Obeya

Bjarne Berg Wig
4 min readAug 12, 2023

(From the introduction to my new book: Systems Thinking with Obeya)

The world is undergoing rapid and increasingly complex changes than ever before. Therefore, over time, only strong adaptive learning cultures will be able to survive. At the same time, most organizations are stuck in a mindset where learning consists of “going to school”, “pursuing an educational program” or “attending courses”. Schools and studies are of course important, and you face demanding challenges and changes there too. However, the most crucial place to learn is through the workplace where people work and create value.

The decisive choice between “command and control” systems
and adaptive learning systems.

Organizations around the world are facing a pivotal choice. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) described a law of evolution thusly: “It is not the strongest species that survive, but those that are best able to adapt to change.” (My emphasis). This is also the case with businesses. When complex changes are implemented, often several at once, and they occur rapidly, those who can understand and adapt through shared learning have the best chance of survival. This ability it not attained through just a few skilled research experts or upper management, but rather is achieved through improved learning by all employees and partners. Thus, all parts of the business can simplify, improve, and renew themselves. The emergence of such adaptable learning cultures is happening today in very diverse businesses, such as hospitals, elderly care, industrial production, and ICT businesses. Common to them is that they see the entire business as a system and that the “engine” or driving force of this system is the inherent ability of human beings to learn. We are currently in the midst of a paradigm shift (shift in mindset), both within human society and in our relationship with the natural world that surrounds us. We face everything from “wild” problems related to nature’s sustainability, hunger, unhappiness, war, and peace, to the more “half-wild” problems that businesses and municipalities struggle with. Common to all of them is that they are inextricable parts of systems. The systems deliver what they deliver. The problems are not random, but systematic — they are “built in” to the systems. Therefore, we need to improve our ability to understand them quickly and find the right countermeasures. The industries are struggling with system problems such as:

  • Product defects, unwanted variation, chronic deviations, customer dissatisfaction
  • Energy costs and major energy leaks
  • Use and disposal, storage and recycling costs
  • Short- and long-term absence, unhappy employees, injuries and hazardous conditions
  • Regularity losses, restructuring losses, shutdown and repair costs

Slowly, we discover that all industrial production is built around taking from nature, processing, and consuming while trying to get rid of the residue. The worlds oceans, from which we arose, and which we need to live, is being littered.

In municipalities and public administration, the systems create:

  • Dropout from school, bullying, substance abuse, unnecessary child welfare cases
  • Employee unhappiness, unnecessary absence
  • Traffic, noise, pollution, concrete replacing play and sports areas
  • Energy/electricity costs, regularity loss, long processing times
  • Bureaucracy and cumbersome case management times

These challenges cannot be delegated to the R&D department, HR, the quality and HSE department or the marketing department. Nor to “think tanks”. They must be met with developing the entire organization’s ability to learn, in other words, better adaptive, learning systems.

So we have two paths forward:

1. Continued illusion of control through bureaucratic goals and performance management[1]
Continue with a slow and complex plan and governance process in which reports are produced that are sent around and discussed at drawn-out political and administrative meetings. Professionals who sit in separate “silos”, with subsequent immediate measures to deal with crises (newspaper writings with political squabbles over who is to blame).

And where most people are passive voters and bystanders.

2. The second path of choice has focused on the development of learning communities. Develop modern learning rooms with interdisciplinary teams and user involvement where one sees — thinks and act together.

Figure. Obeyas three main functions. Line of sight, systems understanding and learning.

Those who choose option 1 can pass this book on to someone else. For those of you who choose option 2, the book will provide knowledge and tools to develop better organizational learning. The book does not answer all questions but concentrates on how we develop shared “rooms” for organizational learning.

[1] MBO — Management by Objectives

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Bjarne Berg Wig

Institute for Learning Organizations. Author, lecturer and sensei.