Earlier in my career I worked as a manufacturing process engineer at a global manufacturer. The company was investing in automating processes and upgrading machines. However, they weren’t giving their people the tools they needed to reduce busy work and focus on solving problems.

For example, the technicians I worked with were pulled away from their work on automation and systems to complete paperwork.

This was inefficient. However, it was also dangerous for the business. Many of these technicians had decades of experience working with a specific machine or process. Their institutional knowledge was scattered across spreadsheets, or worse, only available in their mind.

Many of the people in these roles were approaching retirement. The so-called “silver tsunami” was a real threat to the team and the company.

I experienced this first hand. A packaging engineer on my team was about to retire. He had a background in electrical and mechanical engineering, and was in charge of managing our packaging machines. He had worked with these machines for 20 yrs. Every time something needed an update he would calculate the settings from the algorithm in his head. If he remembered, he would make and print spreadsheets detailing the process another team member needed to follow.

He was the only person that could do an audit and change the settings. All of that information was individual knowledge instead of institutional knowledge. Additionally, as customization of new packaging resulted in a larger number of packs being made, the current way would not scale to support the magnitude of the changes.  We could not afford to rely on our expert when a new pack was introduced in the middle of the night on a weekend.

My project was to learn this system he’d developed over 20 years in 3 months. I needed to find ways to automate his processes using logic, math, and relationships between inputs. This was the only way to enable running a new packaging SKU at any given moment to meet the business needs.

In this case we were able to figure it out before he left. It would have been better if this type of project happened regularly. It also frees up the talent to work on more complex problems.

Other people involved in processes could have visibility and access to institutional knowledge. Together we could use that information to drive efficiency and improvements. The gains we made by reviewing and sharing this process would have been great for the company. They also add up over time with effort and defect costs.

Before the silver tsunami hits companies need to invest in systems and people to implement a sustainable way to transfer knowledge, and stop overvaluing machines.