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Manufacturing Industry Updates

Preventing Brain Drain


Manufacturers should implement knowledge management programs now to capture retiring employees’ institutional knowledge. (iStock/rudall30)

Manufacturers are bracing for the impending brain drain as a large group of long-time employees begin to retire and take their vast institutional knowledge with them. Smart organizations know they need to implement knowledge management programs now to avoid any service disruptions when the next generation steps in to manage manufacturing plants. The best way to overcome this is to establish a sound knowledge management strategy designed to extract, aggregate and disseminate institutional knowledge.

Top manufacturers credit their knowledge transfer program as a major contributor to its success. Whether it is a formal specification from a plant manager or a tester’s notes, data needs to be available so the business can make informed decisions at all times.

Creating a systematic approach to transferring the information gained through the development process to the manufacturing floor efficiently is critical to long-term success. Yet, many manufacturers fail to fully utilize internal knowledge because they fail to manage it like other assets and neglect to maintain, update and distribute it for maximum benefit.

Information can’t move from capture to dissemination without going through structure; otherwise, the ability to retrieve the information could be lost. At the same time, not all data needs to be disseminated.

In total, there are four steps to manage the transfer of knowledge from development to production: capture, structure, distribution and application.

The Foundation to Knowledge Management: Capture

New products do not begin life as fully-formed product specifications. Before the first draft of a specification is written, there are plenty of meetings, brainstorming sessions and hall conversations. How are the ideas from these interactions captured?

For example, let’s say a manufacturer goes through a dozen fabrics before finding two that meet the requirements for a light-weight backpack. After testing both materials, the more expensive fabric formed the strongest seam and was selected for the final product.

Now fast forward five years. The employees who worked on the original project no longer work for the company but there’s been a request from management to lower the price of the backpack. Manufacturers who kept notes about its product development would instantly know which fabrics had already been rejected and avoid unnecessary quality issues or delay time to market.

Meeting minutes and session notes are two ways that companies capture ideas. But what about those hall conversations or those ideas that don’t make it out of the prototype phase?

This type of knowledge, often called tribal knowledge, has value, even in an unstructured form. Some companies have online developer diaries, where at the end of each day, developers record information about their work. It’s in these daily notes that tribal knowledge resides. Even if the notes remain unstructured, they can be accessed if the need arises.

That doesn’t mean that every data point must be captured at all times. Organizations should develop a knowledge strategy to help determine what information should be captured.

Capturing data may not seem that important to a business’s ability to scale, but it is the fundamental component that enables effective replication. If an organization doesn’t have the necessary data to ensure accurate duplication, its ability to scale is jeopardized. What may appear to be inconsequential knowledge may turn out to be the critical component to operational success. That’s why knowledge capture must be managed.

Knowledge Maps > Knowledge Silos

After capturing corporate insights, manufacturers must determine how to store the data. Many plants use a database for their knowledge management system because they provide indexing, organize information for rapid retrieval, and allow for multiple delivery methods from a single source. This is a good start, but can’t be the only means of establishing structure on a company’s information.

Instead, manufacturers should create knowledge maps that identify the flow of information through the enterprise. When trying to move into production, companies need to map out the information in the development environment so it can be transferred to production.

Mapping is crucial if companies want to ensure that all information is transferred. Companies need to document all processes, write troubleshooting guides, and test everything so that what moves into the factory has already been proven in development. If copied exactly, there should be no surprises once the product is in production. Using this process enables manufacturers to scale up production without fear of lower productivity.

Understanding how information flows through an organization provides a structure for knowledge management. Creating a knowledge map as part of the design process ensures that the necessary information will be available from the start of production.

Accessibility is the Key to Knowledge Management Success

As part of knowledge dissemination, manufacturers should determine the form the knowledge should take as well as its accessibility and use. For example, product specifications, which conform to document guidelines, should be very detailed.

Providing an index or table of contents lets the user skip to the appropriate section of the document. At the same time, product specifications hold crucial intellectual property that must be protected.

To protect intellectual property, user access should be restricted to minimize uncontrolled modification or unauthorized access. These restrictions also help with version control,
which is especially important to data integrity. Processes are needed to ensure a single source of truth throughout the development process while allowing contributors to make updates and corrections as needed.

Of primary importance is maintaining a single source of truth. Even for a company that painted the factory walls to match those in its labs, the information had to come from one source. If not, the processes would not be exact.

Suppose a change was required to the first 10 steps of the production process. However, the process change was made using a different source document from the original. When the process change is implemented, it won’t work. Because the two source documents are not the same, the resulting documentation will be different.

Although the deviation appears minor, its impact could be significant as production comes to a halt while the error is found and corrected. Imagine the financial impact if the error was replicated over multiple facilities and took weeks to correct.

The next steps are determining what information needs to be disseminated and in what manner. In other words, what data is required to ensure that the two environments are identical and what is the best way to deliver it?

A blueprint may be sufficient for a factory reconfiguration, but a “how-to” video is better for assembling parts. Videos may be a better option for sharing knowledge if a company has plants in different countries. Unlike a written document, a video doesn’t require the employee to understand the language as much as being able to follow the steps.

Since language barriers can impact effectiveness, videos might be more effective when distributing knowledge internationally. Searchable databases and indexed documents also make it easier for employees to access information.

Placing knowledge, whether written or graphical onto an inter- or intranet, is another means of distribution. Making content accessible using a mobile application or tablet can make it easier for employees to access information while on the job. It doesn’t matter how accurate the information is if it is not accessible to the employees; if they don’t have it when they need it, it has little value.

Applying knowledge is not just about having information available so employees can use it on the job; it is also about giving them the opportunity to apply their knowledge to solve problems autonomously. Manufacturers provide their employees with physical tools to complete their daily tasks, but it’s also important to provide them with mental tools as well.

Knowledge management is a powerful employee engagement tool that improves workers’ performance and sense of job satisfaction.

Gjergj Demiraj is the president and CEO of Gutenberg Technology, a company that transforms how content is created, reused and distributed at scale. As a global technology executive and business operations leader, Demiraj brings a record of success and expertise in creating innovative software products and achieving consistent growth in competitive markets around the world.