There’s an awful lot of accumulated manufacturing knowledge on the typical shop floor. Losing a skilled shop floor worker is a significant loss for the enterprise in terms of process knowledge. Manufacturers can only hope that there is sufficient documentation available so a new staff worker can ‘figure it out’ quickly enough to keep pace, or even avert a disaster. As experienced employees retire or move on, how can a manufacturer preserve that accumulated product and process knowledge?

Process Documentation

This brings us to the issue of documentation – or the capturing of knowledge by means other than human memory.

The best scenario is when job tasks and processes are covered by documentation – work descriptions, step-by-step written procedures, videos, technical documentation (drawings, specifications, work instructions), and the like. Of course, that doesn’t capture the knowledge – just the process.

In some areas, company knowledge can be captured in the ERP system. Product configurators, for example, are embedded with detailed information about products, components, suitability and compatibility for use, and a good deal of design and engineering knowledge.

It’s obvious that these systems must be maintained so knowledge of the configurator as well as the products can keep the systems working effectively. In other words, a configurator can encapsulate product and engineering knowledge but it is not a substitute or direct replacement for engineering talent and knowledge. It can relieve the engineering department of some of the burden of sales support and order validation, for instance, but it will not design your next product.

The Role of ERP and Operations Management Systems

Knowledge management (KM) capabilities within ERP systems are critical to help achieve this transformation, as is a strong and simple-to-use Operations Management tool.

Knowledge management functions within a comprehensive ERP system can be extremely useful and effective as comprehensive repositories of knowledge in customer support applications, for example. Serving both internal support call center personnel and web-based self-service environments, KM systems combine the storage and management of knowledge with sophisticated search and retrieval capabilities that make the knowledge available and useful.

Likewise, Operations Management solutions document the detailed process instructions and work center setup.  The best systems make it easy to attach photos, videos and other aids to make the process very clear.  It is essential to ensure that workers update the documentation as they encounter and solve problems.

What’s Involved?

System implementation starts with the capture of existing documentation into a single KM knowledge-base and continues with clean-up, redundancy elimination, organization and indexing, and finally a continuing program of authoring and maintenance to broaden its scope and keep the knowledgebase current.

Basic problem-solving procedures include problem identification (hopefully in advance of when it causes dire consequences), risk assessment (impact and likelihood of occurrence, cost and benefit of various solutions), deploying a solution, and learning from the experience to develop preventive measures for the future.

A Labor Shortage

The manufacturing sector is well aware that there is a shortage of skilled workers to replace retiring baby boomers.

Remediation includes everything from transforming the image of manufacturing as a highly technical and automated, clean, challenging workplace, to actively engaging with community resources and educational institutions to develop and enhance education to “sell” the next generation of young workers.

Preserving Knowledge

Through various management processes and the application of technologies like knowledge management, we can and should preserve as much of the embedded knowledge of or senior staff as possible.

The solutions are there – we just need to focus on the issue and take action to ensure that manufacturing continues its demonstrated pace of growth and productivity improvement.

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