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.


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?


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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