Why Tribal Knowledge is the Biggest Threat to Manufacturing... And What You Can Do About It

By Matt Lenzen

Why Tribal Knowledge is the Biggest Threat to Manufacturing

Posted on February 21, 2020
  • February 21, 2020

Why Tribal Knowledge is the Biggest Threat to Manufacturing

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There is a paradigm shift taking place in manufacturing companies: the baby boomer generation that made up a majority of the workforce is retiring. And when they retire, critical information, often referred to as “Tribal Knowledge,” goes with them, resulting in gaps of information at the companies they leave behind. 

In the United States alone, there are an estimated 12 million manufacturing employees over the age of 55. The National Association of Manufacturers says in the next decade, companies will need to replace over 3 million jobs due to the retirement of manufacturing employees. And it’s keeping executives up at night. 

To address this brain drain, companies need to take action now in order to maintain institutional knowledge and position themselves for success. This means equipping the next generation of workers with the right tools to succeed.

What is Tribal Knowledge?

According to businessdictionary.com, tribal knowledge is defined as: “A set of unwritten rules or information known by a group of individuals within an organization but not common to others that often contributes significantly to overall quality. Tribal knowledge may be essential to the production of a product or performance of a service but may also be counterintuitive to the process.”

When it comes to manufacturing and supply chain, examples of tribal knowledge abound. I vividly recall a plant I used to frequent that had a finicky line. There was one person who could make the line run efficiently and he was relied on heavily. He got sick and was out for weeks. The company ultimately had to fly in the OEM from Europe to help run the line. This was a six figure bill for them to pay. Situations like this are avoidable and can be remedied with minimal investment in the right tools. 

At Specright, the customers we work with are identifying specification management as an answer to this problem. 

Specification Management Software: A Single Source of Truth for How Things are Made

We’ve established that retirees take knowledge and expertise that have been developed over multiple decades with them. Unfortunately, most companies don’t have plans and/or the tools in place to transfer tribal knowledge from person to the company. 

I’ve seen companies try to address this in many ways over the years: paper notebooks on a manufacturing floor that get spilled on, chalkboards in humid plants where the chalk runs because of the humidity, even people telling me they don’t want to share information because if they share their knowledge of a certain widget, they lose job security. The list goes on. 

When you peel back the onion of this problem, you realize that the information typically most at risk when it comes to tribal knowledge is related to specifications, the DNA-level data needed to make, buy or sell a product. 

Machine Line Factory Bottles SDM Manufacturing

Tribal knowledge around manufacturing processes posses a risk to organizations as baby boomers retire.

For example, the engineer who knows a machine runs a certain way in the summer but not in the winter or the packaging professional who knows that a certain rigid plastic container design won’t work in the Rockies because of altitude and pressure in the environment. Executives and operators dealing with tribal knowledge or brain drain challenges like this should turn their attention to specifications. In both of these examples, this additional detail can be stored and associated to the right specification for visibility and traceability.

Specright is the first purpose-built platform for Specification Data Management™ and a fundamentally different approach to bringing products to market by starting with DNA-level specification data. Whether it’s packaging, raw materials, formulas, products, or machinery specifications, there are thousands of data points and processes at companies today that are held as tribal knowledge. With Specright, companies can centrally document, map and manage their information, transitioning it from spreadsheets and lessons learned on the job to a secure online platform that can be used by the next generation of professionals entering the workforce.

And the brain drain isn’t limited to retirees: with Millennials are the most likely generation to switch jobs and do so more frequently than their predecessors, so it’s more important than ever to digitize critical data and processes in a single source of truth. Spending extra time now will save you time, energy and financial resources both in the short and long term. 

After all, the status quo of not digitizing tribal knowledge is killing the bottom line of companies now and it will only get worse over the next decade unless action is taken.