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“Amnesia” is a partial or total loss of memory. “Corporate amnesia” is when a company suffers that type of “memory” loss. The impact can be significant. Our plants and facilities depend upon the knowledge and know-how of highly experienced operators, maintainers, engineers, supervisors, managers, and others to figure out how to prevent and/or respond to adverse events that impact productivity, profitability, safety, and/or environmental performance. Corporate amnesia occurs when that knowledge and know-how walks out the door due to retirement, job changes, force reductions, and other situations.

As result of that type of exodus, less-experienced individuals must learn by way of trial and error. This approach is costly, inefficient, time- consuming, and compromises our goals for asset reliability and performance management.

Corporate amnesia starts when knowledge and know-how is tacitly held in the heads of our people. We often refer to it as tribal knowledge. Legally, the knowledge and know-how is the intellectual property of the company that pays the salaries of those who possess it. However, given that corporate lobotomies aren’t an option, we must find a better way to manage that intellectual property.

Our challenge is to convert the tacit knowledge into formal knowledge in the form of procedures. When you look at any reliability-critical industry, such as commercial aviation and nuclear power, among others, you’ll find that procedures dictate day-to-day operations. That translates into repeatable and reliable results from all team members as a function of time. Creating a foundation of procedures also serves as the basis for business or engineering analysis and continuous improvement. After all, organizations that depend upon tribal knowledge can’t really pursue continuous improvement. Instead, they’re required to perpetually rebuild the foundation.

Knowledge and know-how management has four basic components: 1) knowledge and know-how socialization; 2) knowledge and know-how administration; 3) knowledge and know-how logistics; and 4) knowledge and know-how engineering, which feeds back into knowledge and know-how socialization to close the loop. Knowledge and know-how socialization is the mechanism by which knowledge and know-how is transferred through informal channels by internal mentoring and socialization. Unfortunately, absent the other important elements of knowledge and know-how management, knowledge socialization is often counter-productive. Let me explain.

I spend most of my time consulting on what I call FLAB (fasteners, lubrication, alignment and balance, which are the foundational elements for proactive and precision maintenance). I’ve had hundreds of plant technicians tell me that they learned many elements of what I teach them when they were in trade school, but have deviated because of cultural norms in their plants. They have, in essence, been socialized to take short-cuts and perform sub-standard work because it is the organizational norm. We must break this cycle of despair!

Breaking that vicious cycle requires that we first formalize the tacit knowledge of our best operators and maintainers into explicit knowledge as procedures. We’re aiming to capture the knowledge and know-how of our top-10-percentile team members. We need to determine what makes them successful. It must be documented and incorporated into procedures and checklists that include important fit, tolerance, quantity, and quality details required to complete the job properly. When the work processes incorporating the knowledge and know-how of our best team members for maintenance, operations, and other critical plant functions have been explicitly documented, we can perform a first-stage effort of knowledge engineering to correct any glaring deficiencies in the first-pass documentation of current best practices.

Once the hard work of formalizing your best, existing tacit knowledge and know-how into explicitly defined procedures, things become pretty simple. We must develop a knowledge and know-how solution to ensure that we get the explicitly defined knowledge and know-how to the people who need it, when they need it and in a form that’s usable to them. This could be in the form of printed procedures, electronic tablets etc. We must also conduct a skills assessment to identify training and competency gaps relative to the newly defined procedures and checklists and we must begin the process of socializing the team to the new practices. From there we loop back to knowledge engineering for continuous improvement.

Most organizations are stuck in the cycle of despair and have not taken on the knowledge- and know-how-management challenge because it is, arguably, a daunting task. Nevertheless, the near and long term benefits of taking on the challenge are massive.

With a little help from experienced people and some innovative technologies, you can convert your tribal knowledge into meaningful procedures and checklists to guide best practice. One need only examine how reliability-critical organizations operate to conclude that it’s well worth the effort.TRR


Drew Troyer has 30 years of experience in the RAM arena. Currently a Principal with T.A. Cook Consultants, he was a Co-founder and former CEO of Noria Corporation. A trusted advisor to a global blue chip client base, this industry veteran has authored or co-authored more than 250 books, chapters, course books, articles, and technical papers and is popular keynote and technical speaker at conferences around the world. Drew is a Certified Reliability Engineer (CRE), Certified Maintenance & Reliability Professional (CMRP), holds B.S. and M.B.A. degrees, and is Master’s degree candidate in Environmental Sustainability at Harvard University. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or dtroyer@theramreview.com.


Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, tribal knowledge, knowledge management, workforce issues