How a Big Room approach can yield big results

How a Big Room approach can yield big results

Motivate teams to collaborate and tackle challenges before they become issues for more effective project delivery.

Tammy McConaughy, Global Director, Lean Delivery
CRB Group

Today’s design and construction teams are faced with the challenges of delivering within shrinking timelines and budgets while also enduring the lasting effects of supply chain and labor shortages.

Advancing work rapidly, being innovative, and fostering a culture of collaborative accountability and problem solving is no longer a nice-to-have. But how can teams foster this culture while continuing to work at a blistering pace? Meet the Big Room setting.

The ‘Obeya’ is a Japanese term for ‘the big room’. The idea is to bring a diversity of thinking to a project and move it forward effectively by coordinating everyone and everything involved, and taking a proactive approach to challenges and issues. Contrary to its name, A Big Room has little to do with location or space and more to do with mindset.

So, to understand this approach, the question is not ‘What is a Big Room?’, but ‘How can I Big Room successfully’?

Step into Big Room thinking

In a traditional meeting setting, you might have a room full of people, many of which may be multitasking while waiting to take turns reporting out to the group. This one-way flow of information fails to engage participants, and hierarchy reigns. As a result, everyone and no-one owns problems, commitments are not made, and issues pile up and stagnate.

A Big Room is different, it provides a strong foundation for multi-disciplined team engagement by fostering a culture of trust and respect for what each team member brings to the table no matter title or seniority. It celebrates successes big and small, continuously motivating the team and its individuals to improve.

How does a Big Room work?

It is never too late to Big Room on a project. Start with identifying a Big Room Champion or small core group to establish the room and set its purpose. The Champion or core group of champions can hold any role on the project, but they must be empowered to speak up, make changes, and to lead.

The big room is not a traditional report-out meeting; collaborators must have a purpose, and that is where a Structured Agenda comes in. Everyone has a clear role and understands what it is: to answer questions, to add insights, or to be actively participating. The agenda drives each participant to be prepared, engaged, and on point.

Setting the culture in the big room is as important as the structure. Building a foundation of trust does not just happen. It needs to be fostered through interactions and intentional team building. Fostering the psychological safety that supports creative conflict, accountability and collaboration is essential to a successful Big Room setting.

Peer Facilitators manage the meeting and keep it on track. This allows participants to focus on the task at hand and stops the group from heading down a rabbit hole. Anyone, including Peer Facilitators, can use a tool called an ELMO (enough, let’s move on) to help maintain the agenda. This allows all participants to take leadership, manage sidebar conversations, and set some topics aside that need to be parked and tagged for follow up.

Your Time Keeper reminds the attendees of time limits and keeps them ontrack, and a Scribe captures action items, constraints, and maintains the Decision Log.

Visual Displays of all the information needed helps guide the team in decision making, problem solving, and coordination. A clear idea of the current state and the goal state should be present and top of mind. This can be done via collateral on the walls of the physical Big Room space or in a virtual whiteboard space or virtual collaborative space. It’s also important to have a storage place for visuals that members can access after the session ends.

The Big Room structure, attendees, and objectives will change over the course of the project. It’s a flexible approach that allows the Big Room to meet the current demands of the project team and project. Regular retrospectives and plus/deltas on the Big Room would include feedback on the structure, participants, objective, timing and spatial layout of the Big Room. As it progresses over time, the Champion facilitates the room to ensure that it continuously improves to maximize its impact.

Where do teams Big Room?

Although a Big Room does not need to be a big space, teams do need to gather. There are a few models that work:

Co-location: Big Room participants are physically located together, with no virtual attendees. This could be a permanent space onsite or in an office or a company HQ.

Virtual: Big Rooms have frequently been located on Zoom over the last few years and this trend is here to stay. Collaborative digital tools like Miro or Mural can support the virtual environment.

Hybrid: A combination of in-person and virtual attendance by select participants.

Tips for success in co-location Big Rooms:

  • Invest in internet and presentation tools to maximize sharing of ideas and information.
  • All furniture should be on wheels and able to be moved around, including tables, chairs, and white boards.
  • Plan for storage of physical collateral and allow for hanging materials on the walls , for e.g. pull planning boards.

Tips for success in virtual and hybrid Big Rooms:

  • Actively engage people often.
  • Cameras on, mute buttons off.
  • Take mini breaks and pause for questions.
  • Use breakout rooms.
  • Don’t try to cram too much in, a virtual Big Room takes longer.

New participants should be onboarded into the Big Room so they are comfortable with the technology, the objective, and new behaviors. A strong Facilitator is essential to sharing floor time and information between participants.

The benefits of a Big Room mindset

It’s never too early to put a project into a Big Room, and it should run throughout the lifetime of the project. Big Rooms can solve issues that might have halted a project in the past: scheduling, supply chain impacts, and design challenges all vanish in the face of a well-run Big Room. And bonus points: they foster a positive team culture that follows through the whole of the project.

The Big Room promise:

  • Support cross-functional high-performing teams in advancing work.
  • Value driven, focused on customer value.
  • Delivering within the constraints of the project schedule & budget.

When the Big Room is working well, people real find value in it. Making this promise to a project is not a small commitment and the team should realize this, however, getting the owner, designers & builders working together early and often will pay dividends to the process, and importantly, the outcome.

Learn more about Big Rooms at the Lean Construction Institute.


Tammy is a Six Sigma black belt and certified national trainer with the Lean Construction Institute. An industry leader with 15 years’ experience applying lean principles to capital projects, she delivers industry classes on the topics of: Lean Project Delivery, The Business Case for Lean, Target Value Delivery, Big Room Mindset, Last Planner System® and Gemba Walks. She is also a contributing author to the LCI published book, Target Value Delivery: Practitioner Guidebook to Implementation.

As Global Director of Lean Delivery, Tammy develops, facilitates and supports CRB Group’s international Lean design and construction programs.