You hurry down to the assembly line, hearing that production is stopped and will not be able to continue until tomorrow. As you make your way, you start to make guesses about the problem. Is one of the machines down and in need of corrective maintenance? Did we lose or damage a critical piece of tooling? Do we have a materials problem? Finally arriving, you ask about the root cause of the stoppage.

“Well, you see, Frank is out sick today.”

You reply with, “OK, so let’s move someone over from another line and get things moving.”

The supervisor responds with an expression of resignation. “You don’t understand. Frank is the only person who knows how to do the testing and verification steps. No one else has the training — not that we have any training to give them. We don’t have any documentation on how this step happens. Only Frank knows how to use the tools and software.”

An overview: What is tribal knowledge?

Tribal knowledge is any information pertaining to a product or service process that resides only in the minds of the employees. The information many reside with one or many employees, and it may vary between employees, but it is undocumented in nature. 

“Undocumented” means the method may or may not be the most efficient way of performing the work. It may not even be an effective or correct way to perform the work. It also means multiple employees are likely to perform the work in different ways, based on their own version of tribal knowledge.

3 benefits of addressing tribal knowledge 

Confirm that the work is standardized through documentation

All information regarding how a process creates a product or service should be documented. This allows for the benefits of standard work to apply. When creating a process, you want the work performed the same way every time. Otherwise, you invite variability into the system and to make identifying quality root cause issues far more difficult. 

Confirm that the work is performed in an efficient manner

Once documented, a process can be analyzed to determine which steps in the process are value-added and which steps are non-value added. This analysis cannot be performed if the knowledge only resides within the minds of the person (or people) performing the work. 

It’s common to find out that a particular step is being performed “because that is the way we have always done the work,” even when the original reason the work was performed a particular way has long since ceased to exist.

Confirm that legal and safety requirements are being met

Often, when pieces of processes are not documented, the work performed fails to meet legal and safety requirements. When these oversights are uncovered, it can lead to employee injury, process downtime, legal fines, and other financial consequences.

3 tribal knowledge best practices

Companies may meet some resistance regarding the documentation of tribal knowledge. Some employees view the tribal knowledge they possess as a way to protect them from layoffs, because if they are the only personnel that has the information, the company might not be able to risk letting them leave. Some employees see this kind of knowledge as leverage during raise negotiations. The company is at risk any time an employee can use tribal knowledge against it, since if the employee leaves, the tribal knowledge often leaves with the employee.

The fact that many pieces of tribal knowledge exist means you may need to have these individuals present for a Kaizen event, as they are often the only source of information that is critical for the understanding of the current state.

There are some skills that cannot be documented. These are artisan skills. Be sure to determine whether the knowledge is tribal knowledge, which can be documented, or of an artisan variety, which cannot be documented.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about tribal knowledge

Does cross-training cure the problems of tribal knowledge?

It can, but only if the information performed in the training is documented. Just having an employee share his knowledge with other employees does not cure the issue; you’re working to create a repeatable and predictable process. If the tribal knowledge is passed on without documentation, you risk multiple versions of the work occurring, as people’s memory of the knowledge may begin to differ over time. 

As long as the process is documented, cross-training is a great way to be sure that when one employee is out, another can step into their place, and the process can continue correctly.

How do I collect tribal knowledge?

There are many ways to collect knowledge. One is to witness the work as the employee is performing the steps. Another is to invite them to participate in process improvement events and collect the knowledge through process mapping and the improvements made during the event. 

Try to collect the knowledge using those who have the most experience with the process. Also, consider multiple sources for the information if the process is known to multiple employees, as it can be a great way to identify where multiple versions of the process are occurring.

How do I know if I’ve gone far enough in documenting tribal knowledge?

There are usually financial limitations to how much detail you want to put into documenting a process. It is key to strike the right balance. You need to be sure to document any information that would cause a line shutdown or quality issues when a knowledgeable employee is not available. Also, you do not want to go into so much detail that your documentation efforts make the process unprofitable.

Tribal knowledge is a risk when allowed to be a common occurrence

Tribal knowledge exists in some form at any company, with the best companies documenting what they can to minimize the risks. Many companies are irritated at the costs and efforts needed to document the processes, but the better ones understand that tribal knowledge has the disadvantages of non-standardized processes, difficult-to-diagnose quality problems, legal and safety consequences, and possible lengthy process slowdowns. Successful companies tend to consistently document process-related information and discourage tribal knowledge.

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