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6 Ways to Manage Tribal Knowledge on the Plant Floor

Maintenance Teams exist to keep plants, systems and assets running smoothly.

This goal is hard to achieve for one overriding reason: nothing in the plant environment is constant.

Multiple people per shift touch assets...

Multiple shifts per day work independently...

Systems are constantly changing…

Each asset is nuanced…  

Years of history contribute to the current state.

Even the most seasoned technicians don’t have visibility into all of these activities… and when they walk out the door (end of shift, vacation, retirement), the insanely valuable knowledge they carry walks out the door with them.

What I’ve realized after years of discussing these challenges with Technicians and Managers is that success (and failure) is almost always a result of how well teams manage knowledge.

The best performing plants typically have the best systems in place to:

(1) capture,
(2) organize, and
(3) share knowledge about the systems and assets under their care.

Unfortunately, every system has pros and cons. Many managers have tried implementing various systems, only to be disappointed by the results. There is tremendous value in thinking through different forms of knowledge management, and what your team can try.

“We’ve never been good at managing knowledge, because there are just no good tools for it.” - Bob, Maintenance Manager, leading US packaging manufacturer

Here’s a list of the top 6 way to manage tribal knowledge on the plant floor, along with pro’s and con’s of each methodology:

(1) Verbal systems (ex. "shift passdown", late night phone support): 

The majority of teams still rely on verbal communication to pass critical information between disconnected workers. Dedicated time like shift passdowns can be effective in their speed and flexibility, but the information is temporary and easily forgotten. Verbal exchanges have also become harder due to Covid distancing measures. Many technicians rely on calls to off-duty staff, but these are typically not recorded, aren’t reliable, and are extremely disruptive.

Pros
- Fast and easy (everyone can talk and listen)
- Collaborative (can ask clarifying questions)

Cons
- Temporary in nature
- Easily forgotten
- Location constrained (not happening at the asset, when needed)

(2) Fixed physical systems (ex. whiteboards, sticky notes)

Some teams use physical systems like whiteboards and fixed notebooks that live next to an asset or line to capture critical information. The most interesting example I saw were “caveman drawings” - a self described system of sticky notes and scrap paper left inside panels and at assets in a lime processing plant. Technicians actually kept track of wiring changes, error codes and general work history on these:

While “caveman drawings” aren’t common, whiteboards and logbooks certainly are. Having information at the physical location of an asset is great, but that information is often transient and hard to find.

Pros
- Visible at the point of need (the asset)
- Easy to write and read

Cons
- Transient (erased after some time)
- Non-searchable

(3) Mobile physical systems (ex. notepads, marker on hand)

“I write stuff on my hand in marker” - Brett, Maintenance Technician at aerospace manufacturer. There’s a real need to take notes that travel with you. Whether they are written in a book or on the back of your hand, notes are useful to keep track of knowledge and eventually (hopefully), pass to someone else. But most notes remain siloed and aren’t shared

Pros
- Flexible
- Mobile

Cons
- Duplicative (often transferred to another system later)
- Knowledge often remains siloed

(4) Homegrown digital systems (ex. SharePoint, cell phone notes)

In an effort to combat many of the issues associated with verbal and physical systems, some companies have created their own digital systems. The challenge with this type of solution is typical access and widespread use. SharePoint and related systems are hard to access on the floor, and so many technicians don’t use them. And if there isn’t content being put into a system, the system will serve a limited purpose. These systems typically work best for a specific application, for users that have routine access to a computer, like Reliability Engineers who are optimizing an asset's performance over many months or years.

Pros
- Searchable and indexable
- Access wherever there is a computer

Cons
- Hard to create and maintain
- Limited access on the floor
- Limits use by technicians

(5) Repurposed software (ex. CMMS, EAM)

Most maintenance teams use Computerized Maintenance Management Software (CMMS) or Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) software. This software is critical for tracking assets, inventory, preventative maintenance schedules and tickets. But it really wasn’t designed to facilitate knowledge transfer (the capture, organization and sharing of complex information). Many teams hope that technicians will squeeze more notes into the plain text comments box, but this rarely happens. Often technicians don’t have access to mobile interfaces, and when they do, it’s really hard to leave detailed notes on the floor through a cell phone keyboard.

Pros
- Software already setup
- Work order system already in use by techs

Cons
- Hard to get complex knowledge into and out of the system
- Not designed as a knowledge management tool

(6) Dedicated software tools

In recent years, dedicated knowledge base tools have become popular, both cloud based and on-prem. These systems promise seamless knowledge transfer, and for some use cases they achieve that. For example, having digitized SOPs available through a phone or tablet for complex work procedures ensures compliance, safety and consistency. There are a couple challenges with these systems though. They depend on the maintenance team to input and maintain knowledge into the software. For an overworked maintenance team, this is often a non-starter. This software is often a stand-alone application, requiring technicians to use a second system that isn’t connected to their work order software.

Pros
- Dedicated, mobile interface for knowledge
- Better consistency and compliance

Cons
- Use by technicians can be low because the software is separated from CMMS workflows
- High cost of initial content population and content upkeep

One thing is clear: there is no silver bullet, yet.

Each knowledge management system has tradeoffs that work in some situations well, but not in others. Teams should evaluate their options, and actively try new methods depending on what unique challenges they face.

There is also an opportunity to develop a better solution.

"When they walk out the door (end of shift, vacation, retirement), the insanely valuable knowledge they carry walks out the door with them."

Mobile devices are proliferating in plant environments. Technology such as voice transcription, location based tagging and natural language processing will change the way that technicians:

(1) capture,
(2) organize, and
(3) share knowledge in the future.

An ideal solution would be:

- Mobile based for access on the plant floor
- Accessible to all people who touch assets and systems in the plant (technicians, operators, reliability engineers, managers…)
- Integrated with current workflows and software (like CMMS) to meet technicians where they already work
- Voice-driven for easy and speed of knowledge input
- Intelligent algorithms for easy and relevancy of knowledge sharing / output
- Insanely easy and delightful to use (the key to knowledge input is getting people to adopt)

For information about how Genba is achieving this problem, visit www.genba.ai.

Bruce Kaufman
Co-Founder and CEO of Genba