Harnessing Tribal Knowledge to Improve Performance

Harnessing Tribal Knowledge to Improve Performance

In this episode, the focus is on tapping into tribal knowledge to drive operational excellence and business improvement. Mick Holly shares stories of organizations where best practices and ingenuity exist but are hidden in the form of tacit tribal knowledge. By listening to this episode, you’ll gain insights into the importance of preserving tribal knowledge and learn how to leverage it to drive organizational success.

Welcome to Change and Sustain, where we discuss driving sustainable change in your organization through enabling people, process, systems, and technology. Today, we’re going to focus on process, on tapping into tribal knowledge to drive operational excellence and business improvement. And welcome again, this is Mick Holly.

What exactly is tribal knowledge?

Well, having been in literally hundreds of different organizations, what I see is that excellence exists in your organization. It’s unevenly distributed. There are best practices and ingenuity everywhere, but often much of it is hidden in the form of tribal knowledge. That is tacit knowledge that is accumulated sometimes over decades and sits in people’s heads as an unconscious competence. We’ve just been working in a manufacturing environment where the product that they’ve been making, they’ve been making it for a hundred years, it was staggering that they didn’t have a single written down operating procedure for this product because people just knew how to make it. Well, one of the challenges was they promoted a number of people from one of their key manufacturing sites and also there was a lot of competition for talent in the geography in which this plant sat. So some of their long-serving technical people left the business. And as a consequence, all of that tribal knowledge evaporated, disappeared from the organization, walked out. What then ensued was a slow degradation of performance. And because nobody knew really how to operate, new people coming in didn’t know how to operate the facility to its best. It started to break down more frequently until in the end they were in a very dire situation where the plant was running to failure, people were responding to those breakdowns and it was really a, you know, a firefighting operation. And for anybody new coming in, they didn’t know how to operate the machinery, they didn’t know what maintenance processes to follow. And so it’s quite a significant issue.

And another great story for those of you who like food, cheese, camembert cheese. There was a famous camembert cheese manufacturer in Normandy, and they were known, they were famous for producing the best quality camembert. And their competence was being able to put the cheese into the retail outlets just at the point when it was perfectly ripe. They had made this cheese for years. Now their top cheese maker, they’re called an affineur, who knew how to age the cheese in these caves, was approaching 80 years old and the owner of the factory knew he needed somebody to take over. So he wanted to make sure that he could have somebody to be able to know when the cheese was ripe. So he assigned somebody to the cheese maker and said, okay, you need to go and figure out how to do this particular job. And he would follow the old cheese maker and the cheese maker would wander around the caves and he would tap the top of the cheese and he would note, this one’s not ready and go and tap the next pile. Yeah, that one’s ready. And the trainee was coming behind, he was tapping the cheese he didn’t know why he was making the judgment that this cheese was ripe and this cheese wasn’t ripe and so after a few weeks of this the owner called the old cheese maker and said look I know you’re holding back what do you want some kind of payoff or something you’re just not he said I literally I don’t know how I do it I just tap the cheese and I know. He said, well, what is it you’re feeling for? I don’t know. I just know. And so they brought in the local university and the physics department came in and they figured out, they thought, I know what it is. It’s the, when he taps the cheese, he’s feeling how soft the layer is. So they dropped a ball bearing into different cheeses to see how deep the ball bearing would drop and their thought was that will tell us how ripe the cheese is, feeling for softness. Well, there was no correlation whatsoever. So they brought in the chemistry department and said, you know, it’s something to do with the crust. So they took all these cheeses, they coated them with gold dust, they put them in an X-ray crystallography machine to see if there was a surface change in the crust, to change the feel when he was touching it? No. And this went on for a while until this local sommelier came in. She’d been into the factory a few times and had met the old cheese maker and was often doing cheese and wine pairings and they did a little bit of business partnerships. And she made the observation, she says, I know what it is. It’s an olfactory. It’s the nose. What’s happening is when he touches the top of the cheese, disturbs the layer, it creates a fragrance that only the most sensitive nose can detect. And me being a sommelier, I can smell a slight difference. And I think if you find somebody with a good nose, you can train them to understand when the cheese is ripe, which is in fact what they did and the factory and the brand was saved. But here is somebody who’s practiced a craft over decades and it’s become an unconscious competence. And a lot of people don’t know how they do things. When we go into organizations, often we’ll see people who are performing at a high level or a process that’s performing at a high level. There’s no understanding of why that happens.

And I’ll often say to organizations who are scared of change, I know how to change your organization without actually implementing any change because for any process there’ll be a variation, a bell curve of performance and it performs at the mean. But at the far right-hand side, in the top decile of performance, on those days or those hours something’s performing at that level, what’s causing that, what behaviors, what operational processes are in place that allow that to happen. And sometimes it’s locked in people’s heads. And so how do we bring that out? So as you look at your organization, I know that you have excellence within it. I know you have best practices, but we need to be able to take that out as tacit knowledge, explicit and codify it so that you can then propagate it, train it, and improve upon it.

So here’s a couple of things that you can do to improve and codify tribal knowledge in your organization.

The first thing is, is you can map out key processes on a big sheet of brown paper. You’ve seen those big sheets of butcher paper, put those on a wall, have your people that map out the process, the connections between the process, and then give people Post-it notes and ask them to comment on that process. Over a few days, you can put it up in the canteen or in an office and have people come by it. After a few days, it’s stuck with lots of Post-it notes and ideas, and you’ll start seeing some things. Different people have different perspectives and insights onto some of those elements, some of those conditions, and some of those handoffs. And what that allows you to do is to identify when things are working well, not just when things are working poorly, but when things are working well, what are the foundational elements, the systems and the processes behind that that make that happen? It’s a very engaging process. I call it this low-tech, high-touch. You don’t need a computer. You don’t need PowerPoint. It’s getting people involved. They touch the brown paper. They put their Post-it notes. It’s very engaging. They’ve probably never spoken to the person in the other department. They don’t know what their perspective is as the receiving person. And when they see these different perspectives, light bulbs come on, and we’re able then to take that process, write it down, improve it, take out some of the non-value-added steps, but also make sure that the interfaces and the communications are right, so that you can improve it. Then we can actually write that down and codify that into a standard operating procedure, so that that knowledge is forever sitting within your organization. It’s something that you layer on over time. As you improve, you document and put those improvements into your organization. The second thing that you can do is often you’ll find there is some kind of magician. It may be the top sales performer, or the person on a shift who always has the highest production. They’re normally very, very quiet, and they don’t really know why they’re at the top of their game. They just go to do it. And we don’t like to bother those people. But those are the people with the secrets. Those are the people with the insights that they built up over a long period of time. So two little tricks to enable you to identify that knowledge. Number one, give them an understudy. Let them watch. Let them observe. Let them imbibe some of those things and they’ll draw out insights and observations which they can then capture. And that understudy will ask questions, always put somebody in who’s enthusiastic and curious, why did you do that? Why did you do that first and that second? That seems a little odd. So that they build up that knowledge and you can extract that unique experience in a way that we can enable and able to give it to junior people within the organization. And secondly, even if that person is quiet, introspective or conservative, have them do a little training session, get them to teach. Because in order to teach something, you have to understand, you have to unpack, you have to think about what are the foundational elements, what’s the structure so that I can communicate this.

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