The Agile Modeling (AM) Method

Obeya Room: Organizing an Agile Work Room

The environment in which you work has a significant impact on how effective you are as an agilist. Remember the parable of that a horseshoe was lost for want of a nail, a horse was lost for want of a shoe, a knight was lost for want of a horse, an army was lost for lack of a knight, and a kingdom was lost for lack of an army? Does it make sense that your organization be lost for lack of a whiteboard? Or lack of an effective work room? For agile practitioners to be effective they need access to the right type of resources, and this implies that they need a working area that enables agile practices. The Toyota Design system has a strategy called an Obeya Room, which is effectively a large space with lots of whiteboard (or blackboard) space upon which to sketch and share ideas. Originally in Agile Modeling we naturally called these rooms Agile Modeling rooms although now it’s more common to simply call them agile work rooms.

An Example Room

The following picture shows the layout of an agile work room that was set up for a one week modeling and planning session as part of the initiation of an agile team. As you can see this room had three whiteboard walls and a wall of windows.
Agile Modeling Room Layout Example
On the left wall we captured a high-level conceptual model and a business process model, both of which were hand-drawn sketches. On the long wall we captured user interface (UI) models, including a UI flow diagram and several screen sketches. On the right-hand wall we captured free-form diagrams, in particular a free-form architecture diagram. We used the windows for sticky notes, which in this case was a user story model and a collection of tasks representing our schedule. The user stories were captured on rectangular stickies. The “schedule” was a several square stickies on which we captured major dependencies and milestones (with hoped-for dates indicated on them). For the most part the table was used by people to store their stuff while they modeled.

For this team we needed to “build” the room the week before. We scheduled the largest meeting room we could find for the week. We came in on the previous Friday afternoon and moved some of the furniture (a credenza, a small book case, and some paintings) into an unused cubicle down the hall. We then put some whiteboard plastic sheeting on the walls which we had ordered online a few days earlier. This took about an hour. Unforunately this organization did not have pre-built Obeya rooms, agile work rooms, for us to use.

Must Haves

In my experience the following factors are critical for creating an effective agile work room:

  1. You need dedicated space. The most effective teams have their own working areas. Yes, space is at a premium in many organizations but if senior management wants your team to succeed they have to provide you with the resources that you need. You don’t want to have to wait to find a meeting room that’s available in order to get some modeling done. You don’t want to have to worry about somebody erasing your whiteboards, or throwing your index cards in the garbage. I’ve worked in several companies where there was a severe shortage of space, where we would have to wait for days to find meeting rooms. Progress ground to a halt.
  2. Significant whiteboard space. As far as I’m concerned you can never have too much whiteboard space, and luckily whiteboards are incredibly inexpensive (as are whiteboard wall paint and whiteboard wallpaper). Talk to your facilities people, the folks responsible for the physical premises within your organization, and tell them that it’s a priority for your team. Frankly your organization should have several obeya/agile work rooms available on a permanent basis.
  3. A way to take digital snapshots. Don’t forget your phone!
  4. Modeling supplies. You need whiteboard markers, sticky notes (have different colors and different sizes), index cards (you may also want different colors and sizes as well), writing paper, flip-charts, tape, stick pins, string, and whatever other modeling supplies that your team requires.
  5. Large table. If you’re going to use index cards to model with you will likely want a large table to work on. Other times you need a table to place your notebooks on, or more importantly somewhere to put food when you get lunch delivered.
  6. Wall space to attach paper. It’s good to have some non-whiteboard wall space, that way you somewhere where you can attach paper artifacts. If possible have cork board installed, or worst case simply have a few sections of plain wall space.

Nice to Haves

The following features of an agile work room are desirable but not required:

  1. A bookshelf or storage cabinet. You need somewhere to store your modeling supplies, snacks, and toys.
  2. Chairs. Although stand-up working sessions are incredibly productive – people focus on getting the work done and appear to be more willing to contribute – the reality is that people want to be able to sit down occasionally. I believe in having a few chairs in a working area, it’s interesting to note that it’s called a working area and not a sitting area, so that if some people want to sit down then they can. This is particularly important at the beginning of an initiative because your modeling sessions are likely to be longer, see Rethinking Modeling Sessions, and therefore there will be a greater desire to sit. During the construction phase of your modeling sessions have a tendency to be much shorter, often between ten and twenty minutes in length, therefore a stand-up session is much more palatable to the people involved.
  3. Projector. If you are going to bring computers into your working area you should also consider having a projector to attach it to so you can display images on the wall. This promotes communication because everyone can see the information. However, a common mistake that teams make is to try to capture information in a software-based modeling tool during a modeling session, the basic idea is that a “tool jockey” will work the tool as everyone models, often projecting onto a whiteboard where others will draw over the image. The problem with this approach is that it typically proves to be incredibly unproductive because everyone on the team ends up waiting for the tool jockey to capture the information. A better approach would be to use the more flexible tools, the whiteboards, to work together and then use the less flexible tool, the software-based modeling tool, to capture the results later on. To support the whiteboard modeling effort you may choose to have the tool jockey display existing models, the difference would be that you don’t try to update the models as you move forward.
  4. Food. Having food available in your working area is often appreciated by all and will help to build camaraderie. A selection is a good idea, not everyone has the same tastes or eating habits. I personally gravitate towards hard candies, they’re small and store well, and fresh fruit.
  5. Toys. Having something to play with in your hands can help you to get “unstuck” when you’re working. Many teams will also enforce politeness rules by allowing people to throw a foam ball at someone else when they’re being rude or inconsiderate.

I cannot over stress the importance of having adequate resources – note the use of the word adequate instead of extravagant. Remember to apply the principle maximize stakeholder ROI!