Preventing the Extinction of Tribal Knowledge on the Factory Floor

  • January 8, 2024

Throughout history, the factory floor has depended upon tribal knowledge, word-of-mouth experience, and insight from long-time employees that have been continuously passed down. The problem is not with the dependence on tribal knowledge, but rather with the inconsistent or nonexistent record keeping. When that knowledge is not captured, it is lost for good, causing irreparable harm. Just as workflows, reports, and machine processes are digitized and documented, factory employee’s knowledge and skill sets must be digitally documented, too. Retention of employees and factory knowledge is critical to manufacturing success. 

Tribal knowledge in manufacturing

You may have benefitted from tribal knowledge without even realizing it. Think back to your first day on the job. You encounter a roadblock and ask a teammate how to fix it. Perhaps they respond with: “Bill taught me this trick in the spreadsheet,” or, “Go ask Pam; she always gets the copier working again.”  

Tribal knowledge refers to the unwritten, collective information and expertise that exists within an organization or a specific group of individuals. This knowledge is typically accumulated over time through experiences, interactions, and shared practices. It includes insights, best practices, informal procedures, and other valuable information that might not be documented but is crucial for the efficient functioning of a particular organization or team.

At FactoryEye, we’ve seen it all:

  • An employee can listen to a machine and know what is wrong just from the sound of it. No machine manual spelled out that three high-pitched clangs means the fan belt is about to break, but an observant employee constantly predicts and prevents machine failure before it becomes a problem.
  • One employee created the software program years ago that is critical to production. When they left, no updates to the software could be made because no one else understood the coding.
  • Some companies rely on experienced floor managers with 35 years of operational knowledge but fail to proactively train others on the floor to take over those tasks when retirement approaches. 

While tribal knowledge is invaluable, organizations should also be mindful of documenting and formalizing essential information to ensure continuity, especially as employees retire or move on to other opportunities. Tribal knowledge can represent a risk to a manufacturer’s business. But when it is captured, it becomes something else: institutional knowledge. Institutional knowledge does not depend on any one individual, it is data and processes that are embodied in the organization’s documented tools and processes, and can therefore provide benefit to everyone.

Enter FactoryEye. FactoryEye can contribute significantly to capturing tribal knowledge, and turning it institutional knowledge by providing a platform that centralizes data, supports customization, enables real-time monitoring, and facilitates collaboration across manufacturing processes.

Tribal knowledge roadblocks

Tribal knowledge used to be passed from master craftsmen to apprentices. However, the current factory floor is different. Constant turnover causes errors and a lack of general operational knowledge. This can lead to safety concerns, lower product quality, and slower production time. 

New employees need to learn to hold their own quickly. The challenge becomes how to pass on the knowledge from experts to newbies faster than ever before. The truth is that no one has perfected it yet.

Tribal knowledge can be like a game of telephone: by the time it has been relayed over the years from worker to worker, it might be incomplete or distorted. A full, clear solution could be out there, but the workers might assume that a partial solution is the only solution. 

Tribal knowledge dependency could conceivably lead to the suppression of ingenuity. Perhaps there are better ways to tackle the problem. But, if workers are too afraid to offend the original process creator or are met with cries of “it’s the way it’s always been done, don’t mess with the system,” they will quickly become discouraged.

From tribal to digital: Bridging the generational gap

In today’s dynamic manufacturing environment, there needs to be a strategic and documented transference of knowledge, turning tribal knowledge into institutional knowledge. 

Institutional knowledge plays a crucial role in the successful implementation of Industry 4.0 and digital transformation initiatives. Industry 4.0 represents the fourth industrial revolution characterized by integrating digital technologies, data-driven decision-making, and the convergence of physical and digital systems. Leveraging institutional knowledge in this context can contribute in several ways:

Process Optimization benefits from historical insights. Institutional knowledge encompasses insights gained from past experiences and operations. Analyzing this historical data can help identify inefficiencies and areas for improvement in manufacturing processes. Employees with tribal knowledge can contribute to ongoing efforts for process optimization and continuous improvement by providing insight and suggestions based on their practical experiences, capturing this tribal knowledge in documented processes.

Contextual awareness is crucial for interpreting data and making informed decisions.  Employees with tribal knowledge deeply understand the context in which decisions are made. This is a key component of data-driven decision-making. Exposing this context through monitoring and reporting software makes this context available to everyone. When anomalies or unexpected events occur in the data, this context can provide insight into the potential causes and recommend appropriate responses.

Institutional knowledge plays a major role in technology adoption and integration.  It would behoove technology vendors to pay close attention. Employees familiar with the company’s history and operations can contribute to the strategic selection of technologies that align with the organization’s goals and values. These technologies then reinforce those goals and values. This alignment ensures a smooth integration of new technologies with existing systems, avoiding disruptions and maximizing the benefits of digital transformation. 

Institutional knowledge also plays a role in risk mitigation. Employees with tribal knowledge are better equipped to identify potential risks associated with the adoption of new technologies or changes in processes. Those employees can contribute to developing mitigation strategies, drawing on their experiences to anticipate and address challenges. Turning their tribal knowledge into documented mitigation strategies captures their knowledge for the institution.

In the quest to prevent the extinction of tribal knowledge on the factory floor, capturing and leveraging institutional knowledge through platforms like FactoryEye is not just a necessity but a strategic imperative. As manufacturers navigate this transformative era, guaranteeing the survival of institutional knowledge should become a guiding principle, ensuring that the evolution of the factory floor is not only inevitable but optimized for sustained success in the dynamic landscape of modern manufacturing. As Carl Sagan wisely noted, “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” In the context of manufacturing, institutional knowledge represents Survival, the exception that holds the key to the industry’s evolution.

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