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Where Does Your Knowledge Live?

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"Someday, you will have to do it without Jack or Jackie, or whomever it is that fills in the cracks. Just make sure that right now you're not only utilizing their skills as they're demonstrated on a daily basis, but also the ones they keep hidden for emergencies…"

One of my favorite things about the holidays is spending several hours sitting around the dining room table with my parents and two brothers playing board games. Luckily I am a good loser, because I almost never manage to win at Trivial Pursuit.

My disadvantage in regards to Trivial Pursuit is that I have a degree in literature—meaning my theoretical brain does not respond well to facts. I could have a long discussion on the literary significance of Kafka's relationship with Czech socialism—but unfortunately, there are no essay questions in this game.

My family, on the other hand, can school me in almost every category: my brothers are both incredibly adept at remembering the most irrelevant, insignificant facts relating to all sports.

My dad is a history buff; as you might imagine, this can come in quite handy in the game. My mom can do damage in all kinds of categories, considering her knowledge of cultural and political phenomena. My contribution? I drink coffee and try to not blow it for my team. That is, until some oddball question comes along and I know more than anyone else at the table.

My point here is that sometime it takes these types of skill games to realize that you maybe know a bit more than you think you know. My brothers live their day-to-day lives, their brains brimming with all kinds of soft knowledge that they never register they even have until it is arbitrarily tested.

This concept of soft knowledge reminds me of a conversation topic that's come up with several manufacturers in recent months—relating to the impending fear that the baby boomer generation will take far too much soft knowledge with it to South Florida golf courses upon retirement.

In an age of process improvement metrics and benchmarking, we do our best to keep documentation of each and every best practice we encounter. But when it comes to examining the tinier details—the minutiae of someone's day-to-day objectives on the plant floor, for instance—how much is contained in abstraction in the heads of your employees? Are you willing to let it walk out the door at age 65?

If experience and training equal value, then it's imperative that we pinpoint exactly what this value is—down to the small and seemingly insignificant. It seems like this is one potential "manufacturing job crisis" that gets very little attention: we worry so much about hiring, retaining, training, and layoffs, but the less visible threat of retirement should move you to do big things with your documentation—and it could be as simple as sitting your employees down and picking their brains. You also might consider a mentoring-type program where the more experienced employees are routinely shadowed and asked specific questions as to why they do certain things a certain way, or how they react in specific situations that may require quick, informed thinking. And perhaps this last piece of advice is intuitive, but don't underestimate the power of your own observations, which means spending more time on the manufacturing floor, getting feedback, asking questions, and writing it all down.

Haven't we all uttered the phrase "What would we ever do without ___________?" Well, someday, you will have to do it without Jack or Jackie, or whomever it is that fills in the cracks. Just make sure that right now you're not only utilizing their skills as they're demonstrated on a daily basis, but also the ones they keep hidden for emergencies… just like sometimes I need my dad to answer a question about Napoleon while I observe, filing it away for later games.

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Reader Comments:

Your example of using your family moment is an absolute perfect example, and it is the perfect analogy to parallel your point. I have also noticed and spoke up about this same problem: senior and experienced people leaving for whatever reason, and taking, almost literally, millions of dollars with them to the ‘golf course’.

I hear all the time, we need to automate to save (make) money. Well I’m here to tell you, I’ve seen some poor decisions regarding automating a task or operation because the experience was junior, and was not able to understand all the nuances, leading to lengthy startups, changes, and continuous bugs. If the experience, knowledge, and methods were passed down, the better understanding would have led to a better transition to automating the operation.

One way to achieve this, I have been thinking of, is when I create my Preventive Maintenance schedule, or when I call in an outside specialist to perform work on anything, I attach a member of the Maintenance department with the ‘expert’ person. The person tagging along will be someone who will benefit, not just another person.

This philosophy could be utilized in every aspect of a company operation, from sales to production to maintenance. It just takes realization of the benefit, and looking at the long-term, not just the now.



You say, America's business owners, senior managers, executives are worried about losing the knowable base of the baby boomers.

I say it’s a sorry state of affairs that these leaders are too cheap to train the boomers replacements before the boomer leave.  O' yea, companies will have you make up list what to do, write programs, develop process on what the new person needs to know.  To really train that incoming person, well they will have to pick up the notes and figure it out themselves.  When they get there after you are gone.

On my last job assignment, the person I replaced introduced me to the key plant personal for me.  Showed me around my area and was gone!  All this in just four hours!  My senior executive upon retiring took his replacement around for a month!  Obviously people at lower level jobs, job's aren't that important that their replacements would need much training. 

We now have a whole class of executives with little or no plant floor experience making decisions.  They are called MBA's and fast trackers.  They are not devoted to plant/process/product or the people involved in these.  Only their career!  They only need a superficial understanding of the area they are responsible for.

Henry Ford knew people needed money to buy his product and he needed to provide good paying jobs to complete the cycle.  The new MBA's are figuring out how to do the job with less labor, and now are wondering where the product purchasers are?  No one has accused Ford of not being efficient or running a tight ship.