Tribal Knowledge

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Tribal Knowledge

It can be the bane of an organization. What is Tribal Knowledge? It is the knowledge that has been built up in an organization among those with the greatest local experience, that never gets properly recorded. Every company has it, from the smallest Ma and Pa store to the largest most complex manufacturing and processing conglomerates.

How can it be a problem for senior people to carry around vital information in their heads? There are several problems with it. Sure it is absolutely wonderful that those people are the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that they are. It is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing, for there to be a go-to person in every area of your plant, an expert to call on for the most pressing concerns. The problem is, the information is not recorded, not written down, not cataloged.

I worked at a refinery where four men retired at the same time. Between them they had over 100 years of combined experience. These were well seasoned, highly trained, intelligent, hard working, conscientious men. Each man was an encyclopedia unto himself of the areas that he had worked. These were four men that everyone automatically went to with tough questions. These guys always had answers and knew secrets that baffled others. When they walked out the gate, 100 years of combined experience and expertise walked out the gate with them. Literally the first day after they left, they were all sorely missed. Not just because they were great guys, and they were indeed, but because their input was not only wanted, but desperately needed.

Documentation

The medical device industry is one of the most strictly regulated and documented industries on earth. You go into a production lab and you will not find a single sheet of paper that is not an official, signed, stamped document. You will find written procedures, with drawings and photographs for every single operation. It will tell you which serialized screw driver to use to turn which screw. It will detail which numbered bin the screw is in. The documents will even require you to catalog the very lot numbers of each part. The quality control and assurance in a medical device manufacturer would shame virtually any other industry.

Yet, if you go to work in one, you will find even with their extensive documentation and control, there is still a significant volume of Tribal Knowledge. It seems no matter how much we write down, we never cover it all.

This issue is partly caused by the need to be terse. Documentation must have the necessary components without being onerous. Information overload is the danger to be avoided, and the avoidance creates an absence of proper documentation.

Solution: Multi-level Documentation

That sounds simple, and really it is. Institute a multi-level documentation system. Have one basic document for operations. Have a second, deeper document for maintenance, and a third all inclusive document for engineering and design. It could even be done in one document with multiple sections.

This cannot be a static document!

Documents that are not regularly updated become stale and obsolete. I had a vendor email me one day asking if he could use the most up to date codes because the ones in the company standard were obsolete and he could not even find a copy of them. Documents are living creations. They must be continually updated.

Solution: A comprehensive Management of Change(MOC) program.

With a proper document control system, every document will list all documents that rely on or pertain to it. So when you run an MOC, you pull the primary document, and you also pull the secondary documents listed on it. When you make a change to one, you simply update the others. This also allows for your MOC to identify repercussions from you proposed changes more readily. And it is a good idea to get a decent document control software package. There are many on the market to choose from.

This will help with the paperwork, but what about the people?

Mentorship

I have worked in numerous industries for a wide variety of companies, from basement startups to multi billion dollar international enterprises. And I am sad to say that in all that time, in over 30 years of work, I have yet to see a formal mentorship program in a business. That is a sad truth.

A mentorship program will take these old-timers and pair them up with a few younger, middle aged workers to teach them and prepare them. The middle aged or intermediate workers will be paired up with junior employees as well. The tribal knowledge will then begin to flow down through the generations. It is important when setting up a mentor program that a person’s mentor is not their supervisor. A mentor has to encourage you to go beyond your comfort zone and to take chances. A supervisor often has to encourage an employee to stay within their expertise band to maintain high performance. There could be a conflict of interest, and in that case, the mentoring will always lose out.

It is also important to acknowledge an employee’s career goals when choosing a mentor. If an operator is looking to be a supervisor, then one of his/her mentors should be somebody in a supervisory position. If, however, they are looking to become technical masters, then their mentor should be a technical master. A key feature in any professional development plan is a formal mentorship program.

The mentors now also have to be trained. They have to receive leadership training. They need to learn how to teach and coach. Knowing how to do something, and knowing how to teach it, are completely different skill sets. I had some University professors that were so intelligent, so accomplished at their craft, you wondered if they were from another planet, yet their ability to teach others was somewhat limited. It is sad to lock away such brilliance and not be able to share it.

The mentorship program must be formal. There must be one person who is called to champion the program, and given the resources and authority to make it happen. That person also must be passionate about it, as every champion must. People should be signed up and the process monitored. The monitoring is to find weaknesses in the program and strengthen it through continuous improvement.

Even with flawed documentation, a quality mentorship program will ensure that the tribal knowledge built up through the years will be passed down to successive generation. Not only will that expertise flow, it will be built upon. Successive generations will not be continually wasting enormous efforts reinventing the wheel, they will be improving the existing wheel and avoiding repeating past mistakes.

If you only take one thing from this article, let it be the absolute need for a formal, well thought out, mentorship program in your business.


 

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My Best Guy

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Don’t Promote Your Best Guy!

Leadership
Leadership, from where you least expect

You have a facility, a factory, a workshop. And in your shop you have many different positions, a diversity of training and experience, a plethora of people. Each of them is working to become masters of their trades and professions. Each person has a finely tuned technical skill set. Each person applies that skill set differently in the workplace, reacting the specifics of each project they contribute to. All is well.

We watch our people, we train them, we assess them and rate them. Hopefully we also actively participate in their professional development. Often when we do, it is usually a matter of sending them to trade shows or industry specific training like an ASME 31.3 course. This is all good. But this is not enough.

Now a position opens up in your shop for a foreman or area manager. Who do you promote to that position? The standard answer, unfortunately also the wrong answer, is usually “My Best Guy”, or Girl as the case may be. But you are asking “why is this wrong?”. Why is the best worker in the department, the most skilled tradesman/woman, the highest educated PhD engineer not the person to lead the team? Surely they would know the most about the work the team is doing and be the go-to person for the most difficult technical decisions.

Yes they probably are the go-to guy for the TECHNICAL decisions, or at least for technical consultation. Why did I differentiate that? They may be more technically skilled than the rest of the team combined, maybe the world authority in their field, but that does not mean they are the best choice to lead the team.

Leadership and Management are Separate Skill Sets

The best person to lead a team is a team leader, not a technician. Leadership is a skill set. Management is also a skill set. There is a difference between project management, operational management and discipline management as well. They are similar, but different enough that, for example, a skilled and experienced project manager will have a learning curve to deal with when handed a maintenance management position.

And yes leadership and management are separate entities. They are not separate jobs, but separate skill sets. Management is about organization. Leadership is about buy in and team building. We can become great leaders and horrible managers, or vice versa. And neither of those skill sets are technical.

The Fallout

When we take a highly skilled technician and put them in charge of a group, a couple of things will happen. The first thing is that they will be overbearing in their technical opinions. They don’t do it on purpose, but they know that they are the experts. People have been coming to them for advice for a very long time. They will tend to cling to the technical part a little too tightly and not give their people room to grow and perform. Letting go of the technical part and leaving it to my technical team was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn when I made the transition from the bench to the desk.

The second thing that happens is the technician is not inundated with management tasks. He/she now has to organize work, plan, schedule and budget. These are skill that must be learned. Often, during our professional development of these people, we have given them only technical courses and left off the business courses entirely. A skilled, highly trained, experienced electrical engineer is no better at management than an average person walking in off of the street. They need training!

Then there is the dreaded soft skill shortfall. Let’s be brutally honest. Technicians and engineers are not overflowing in people skills. Leadership is a people skill set. Leadership is team building. Leadership is conflict resolution. A Leader is a father, mother, pastor, cop, judge, doctor, mentor, psychologist, team captain and water boy all rolled up into one. A Leader must wear numerous hats, often at the same time. Leadership is a separate skill set. Having a person in a leadership role that does not have leadership skills will kill your team. Morale will drop, production will suffer, quality will erode, and people will leave. Leaders need to be trained!

Set Up for Failure

When we take our “best guy” and promote him off the bench, we set them up for failure. Think about it. You are the leader and the manager. Your shop has been running successfully, therefore your leadership and management skills are at least somewhat honed. You may very well be an expert. So take that expertise and develop leadership and management skills in every subgroup in your business. Find the people, not who are the best techs, but who are the best leaders and managers. Find them and coach them. Train them and mentor them. Prepare them for the roles of team leaders, foremen, and managers.

And a side note, when you take your best tech and promote them off the bench, you are losing your best technical asset from that team. You are taking an individual that is excelling and contributing as much to the business as is physically possible, and moving them to a position where they will likely be a resource drain and an overall hinderance.

And to answer the question of why I differentiated making technical decisions from consulting on them, the person consulting only has to offer an opinion. The level of responsibility is usually lighter. The involvement is usually less as well. They are usually asked a specific technical question on a specific part of a much larger comprehensive project. As such they only have to consider that small window, and not the whole picture. They can then drill down on a very narrow range of possibilities and consequences. The project manager or lead then takes their advice and makes the decision based on the entire project.

Mentor your people. Train you future leaders and managers today. Professional development is not just technical development. There was a saying in the Military, “it takes 15 years to develop a Sergeant with 15 years experience”. There are no shortcuts. If you need them tomorrow, and you will, train them properly today. Then promote your best “leaders and managers”, and leave your expert techs on the bench.


 

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Critical Path Myopia

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In the wonderful world of project management, one of our first and most critical roles is to determine the critical path activities within our project execution schedule. This goes hand in hand with identifying all long lead items and expediting their arrival to meet with critical milestones. We have all learned to do this well.

Unfortunately we often tend to do it too well. We become myopic. We get our critical path identified and focus only on those specific items. At the end of our projects, we sit back and count up our B-Deficiencies. Why do we have deficiencies? How on earth can we make the insane requirements of the critical path schedule, and miss on everything else? Critical Path Myopia.

Events that do not fall on the critical path are also critical. We, however, tend to put them off.For example, if we were recertifying an API-653 regulated tank, our critical path could include items like installing the liner, pouring the concrete subfloor, jacking columns, preparing a nozzle sheet etc. But just as critical are the Foam Chambers for fire suppression. They is not on the critical patch because you can do them pretty much anytime that the wind isn’t howling too hard to get up in a lift. Thus we tend not to focus on them. We have a crew, we have a critical path, we hit that path hard. We don’t want to sacrifice manpower on a non-critical item when we are in danger of slipping on the critical items. Then we find that we are buttoning up after the hydro test and the Foam Chambers are not replaced.

Now the Foam Chambers are your critical path and you are stuck because you let them slip. Now you cannot return your tank to service because you do not have appropriate fire protection. Now your refinery is paying for a day or two of demurrage and your crew is on overtime to get the job done. Maybe there is an air freight shipment charge involved to expedite some parts to site as well.

Critical Path Myopia is a common, and is a dangerous and expensive practice. While it is vital to identify, plan and execute the critical path, it is equally vital to keep the whole program on track. Deficiencies at the the end of a project are a sign that we have fallen into the trap of Critical Path Myopia.

Don’t get nearsighted. Don’t be blinded by the critical path. Don’t allow the “lesser things” to fall out of your attention. Remember, it is the little foxes that spoil the vine. Once you have identified your critical path, ensure that you have also allocated sufficient resources to complete all secondary tasks on time, on spec, and on budget.

As they say in hockey, keep your head up, and your stick on the ice.


 

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