Preparing for and Managing the Rapid Rapid Decline in Operational Know-how

Jun 28, 2022 10:11:00 AM . Julia Walsh

“To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.” Doug Conant

Every organization needs qualified, capable, dedicated, loyal, and hardworking employees to deliver the best possible product or service and keep their customers satisfied. Manufacturing companies rely on their workers for not only delivering the required products per specifications but over the years for improving the very processes that create the products the company sells. The frontline workforce plays a major role in the creation of institutional know-how and shaping the way things are done in a given organization, plant, and process, right down to individual tasks which comprise an activity.

As employees get more experienced in their daily jobs, they gain deep insights and are able to see gaps, that, when eliminated lead to an improved task, contributing to a more efficient manufacturing process. When this phenomenon repeats for years on end and across all facets of the manufacturing process, it shapes the very way in which a manufacturer delivers value. This tribal knowledge becomes intrinsic to the competitive advantage the company enjoys in the marketplace.

Cut to the current day, where the Pandemic continues to rage on and manifest itself through different mutations, where demand is uncertain, supply chains are disrupted, where digitalization is a priority, social distancing and safety norms create challenges, and workers and work itself must transform drastically for operations to function. Today, conserving the core operational know-how from rapidly declining has become a major challenge with limited workers (or new restrictions), an aging workforce, and a lack of digitally or otherwise skilled new labor willing to work in the industrial manufacturing setting.

Threats to Operational Know-How

Aging Workforce- Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, manufacturing industries in the US and the world at large were facing the challenges of an aging workforce. In the US alone, almost 27% of the overall workforce was 55 years or older. Two clear and distinct challenges arise when over one-quarter of the manufacturing sector’s workforce comprises the baby-boomer category. One, as workers naturally transition towards retirement, they take away their unique skill-set and knowledge which helped shape the current process in a given plant/process. Two, replacing personnel with vast experience, and intuitive understanding of the process is a major challenge, since industrial jobs to some extent involve repetition of some kind and might not seem attractive enough to the younger age group looking for more knowledge worker-type roles.

The Pandemic Triple Threat- In 2021, McKinsey highlighted three areas of risk that organizations have to face due to the way the pandemic has and probably will continue to impact the way in which work is done across organizations, industries, and economies.

  • Culture Erosion- Restrictions due to the pandemic meant jobs needed to transform within a very short period of time, which led to the removal of the non-essential workforce from most manufacturing plants to remote work and for essential workers to get acquainted with digital tech and new safety and distancing norms. Operational know-how is often transmitted from experienced, older employees to new and younger ones through their joint participation in activities and processes, which is an essential aspect of any organization’s culture. With restrictions on interactions among employees, knowledge transfer is affected and this erosion of company culture can lead to the eradication of vital know-how which can negatively impact the eventual value creation process.
  • Higher Burnout- With remote work and blurred personal and professional boundaries which became a norm with remote and off-site work, productivity gains were coupled with high burnout as well. Everything from employee engagement to employee training, evaluation, and policies at large need to be adapted for the new hybrid work model where in-person interactions are restricted. Keeping higher productivity without burnout is a major challenge for organizations. Companies need to review how and what digital technology they roll out for their workers and whether the new tech is widely accepted and perceived as a value-adding tool is also something that beckons serious consideration on the management’s part.
  • Hampered Innovation- Process innovation in manufacturing organizations arises from the ability of incumbent personnel to experiment and iterate alternative solutions and workarounds to existing challenges, which when successful become a formalized part of the process and are incorporated into SOP and work instructions. With the aging workforce, limited physical interactions, and higher burnouts, the kind of collaboration needed for process innovation is missing and with it the future enhancement and the very conservation of operational know-how is at risk.

Digital is still the solution. Conserving operational know-how needs to begin with a people-centric approach to the digitization effort in any manufacturing operation. With the right workforce optimization and digitization platform, the existing know-how of current workers can be preserved through digital means. Furthermore, the platform chosen can be used to bridge gaps created due to physical distancing by way of digitally enabled collaboration. New employees can be trained through such digital platforms and if implemented correctly, such a tool can go far beyond the basic training and onboarding tool and can be used to attract a more digitally savvy newer workforce.

Webalo is such a platform, addressing all of the threats mentioned above by enabling digitization of workflows and tasks-- but it does a lot more, let’s understand how.

Capture Existing Knowledge- Webalo at its very core is a platform that digitizes the activities of the frontline workforce which means it is able to capture and convert existing practices into digital workflows, monitor events, and automate activities. When digitized, the current knowledge is preserved, but with an added advantage with Webalo. Process owners and frontline workers using the platform can create their own apps not only to execute their tasks and record/review data but also to add their inputs while performing the job, which is far better than them making an observation, then waiting for the completion of their task and then go to their workstation or jot down their inputs on a notepad or clipboard. Webalo enables mobility and provides workers the comfort of adding their inputs on the go, on their mobile devices. In this way, the worker is empowered instead of forced to merely mimic paper-based activities digitally.

Culture, Collaboration & Innovation- Webalo gives workers and supervisors a single window into the process, where discussions pertaining to a given operational problem can happen on the same platform, while work is executed in order to address it, and all stakeholders can participate and contribute facilitated by the platform itself. With physical distancing and lack of in-person interactions both culture and collaboration suffer. However, when a platform like Webalo brings operational visibility and collaboration together under a single window, collaboration is back and cultural erosion is prevented. When employees collaborate across functions and physical boundaries, process innovation begins to resurface, but with the added advantage of being recorded and automatically embedded into the company culture and process, as every improvement made is recorded and subsequently added to the enhanced digital process.

Knowledge Transfer & New Employee Engagement- When Webalo is deployed across a process, it not only augments the way in which existing employees are able to execute their tasks more effectively, it acts as a catalyst that helps new employees get inducted seamlessly within a process. With Webalo’s digital workflow management and collaborative tools, existing employees are able to not only transfer their knowledge to new ones but also train them and review their performance on the digital platform, which eliminates the need for physical presence in order to do so. Training as an activity graduates from viewing mundane presentations and reading reams of paper-based instructions to an actual on-the-job and fun activity, which involves digital instructions delivered on a mobile device and mentoring through the same platform which delivers instructions, augments performance and records data pertaining to the ongoing training/work.

The Pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital tools by manufacturing organizations, just to remain operational. However, as the pandemic matures and organizations realize where the threats to the operational know-how lie, the digital platform they choose to engage, empower, and elevate their workforce can be the difference between them losing their tribal knowledge or gaining better process insight and becoming a rapidly innovating, agile, and resilient operation.