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5 Tips to Turn Tribal Knowledge into Digital Work Instructions


What is tribal knowledge and how can you capture it? Your company risks losing essential information if you still rely on paper and tribal knowledge.

8 October 2018

How do manufacturing trends impact work instructions? These are the main traits of the “Shop Floor of the Future”:

  1. It’s heavily automated.
  2. It generates tons of data.
  3. It’s connected.

All of this with the aim to improve quality and production in manufacturing. However, we are not there yet. Exhibitors presented the latest and greatest in Manufacturing technology, but the reality is that most production sites still work with old technology. Despite the attention for Industry 4.0 and Smart Factories many companies still rely on paper and tribal knowledge.  We explored this phenomenon further from a knowledge and work instructions perspective.


Industry 4.0


Industry 4.0 is a new era for work instructions.

The transition from paper work instructions to digital seems to be a no-brainer as we are heading to a new Industrial Era. However, a large number of manufacturing companies still rely on paper which has many downsides when it comes to work instructions:

  • Paper instructions are static
  • Not easy to use on the shop floor
  • Data capturing isn’t possible.

At SwipeGuide we experience the huge impact digital work instructions have on productivity and continuous improvement on the shop floor. Going digital not only makes knowledge more accessible, but it also allows prompting the right knowledge at the right time when integrations with ERP systems and machines are made.


tribal knowledge


What is tribal knowledge?

Another thing that we encountered was the concept of ‘tribal knowledge’. This points to the fact that knowledge in many companies is still intangible. It floats from worker to worker in a tribal way via word of mouth. It is a bit scary to conclude that your manufacturing process quality relies on the random knowledge transfer you hope happens between workers. Making tribal knowledge explicit, store it, and make sure it is available is a key challenge for manufacturers. Especially in an era where a lot of skilled, knowledgeable workers are about to retire, and employee turnover is high, it is time to start capturing knowledge and making it accessible for the people who need it.


How to capture tribal knowledge.

Getting from tribal knowledge to smart digital work instructions is a process that helps manufacturers capture their key knowledge for operations. At SwipeGuide we have seen massive improvements at companies doing this. Reducing downtime and safety risks and continuously improving the quality in production is a key goal for manufacturers. Since up to 5% of the downtime is due to bad or missing work instructions, there is a world to win here. Many companies struggle with taking steps forward here as it isn’t easy to get knowledge out of heads of people and store it somewhere. From our experience with capturing tribal knowledge in digital work instructions, we can give you the following tips.


manufacturing tribal knowledge


Tip 1: Take a bottom-up approach.

Most initiatives to capture knowledge and store it in work instructions are approach top down. Overall management, production or quality management starts a project to develop work instructions. In many of these cases, the ownership of the whole thing is on a management level. However, you want the ownership to be on the shop floor since capturing knowledge into work instructions is not a one-time exercise. It is not static. Therefore, you need ownership of the content and process close to the action. It should be with the people that encounter the flaws and opportunity for improvement on a day-to-day basis. We have seen cases where team leaders and operators started improving work instructions together. The only thing that is needed is a sense of ownership and involvement. To validate and secure someone from quality can be involved, but ownership should be with the people that have the knowledge and can feed back the improvements.


tribal knowledge


Tip 2: Easy-to-use tooling.

When you have people on the shop floor creating & updating work instructions, you need simple tools. It is not their preferred job to edit content. The process of capturing tribal knowledge, edit it and share it with others should be straightforward. At SwipeGuide we believe that mobile technology offers tremendous advantages here. Taking photos with annotations is an excellent starting point for getting to digital work instructions. Combined with WYSIWYG editing the process for capturing the procedural knowledge can be even fun. “When you can Facebook, you can SwipeGuide”, is still our favorite quote from one of the team leaders in a beverage manufacturing plant. And that’s what it is! If you want to motivate people on the shop floor to store tribal knowledge, it should be as easy as possible.




Tip 3: Create a community & offer recognition.

When you have shop floor involvement and easy tooling in place you can do more. You need to ‘light the fire’ of the capturing and continuous improvement process. Motivation starts with a sense of ownership and low barriers, but you can do more. By creating a community you can make the capturing of tribal knowledge a group effort. You can create a sense of togetherness. Your workers really become connected workers. Operators on a single packaging line in Belgium can feel connected to their peers in Singapore. They can work together on work instructions that are ‘best practice’. At SwipeGuide we support customers to create this sense of community. Not only in our platform but also using other community and collaboration tools. In SwipeGuide workers can easily collaborate on and share work instructions between plants. Using a generic communication and collaboration platform on top of that allows companies to create lively communities and centers of excellence. In the community, you can also recognize and reward great initiatives. You can put the spotlight on great achievements in capturing tribal knowledge. Offering this recognition is again a motivating factor for workers to get involved in the movement.


shop floor availability


Tip 4: Availability on the shop floor.

Why do all the effort of capturing tribal knowledge in digital work instructions if they are not used? Of course it is good to have them for auditors, but in that case, they are only a hygiene factor. They will be sitting there in their database waiting for the next auditing round to stress the quality department into a quick update round. What you would want is to put the work instructions in the hands of people on the shop floor. That is why we at SwipeGuide focus on mobile first. Mobile & wearable technology offers an excellent way of putting the content into the hands of workers. This lowers the barriers to actually using the knowledge stored in work instructions. It also leads to greater involvement in quality improvements from workers. We have experienced a great value in putting tablets on the shop floor, work with QR codes, and offer opportunities to track and get feedback from the work process.


manufacturing accessibility


Tip 5: It's not a one-time effort.

Capturing knowledge and storing it in a platform like SwipeGuide is not a one-time effort. Products, machines, and procedures change and evolve, as companies strive for continuous improvement. By the time you have stored your last digital work instructions, the first ones will already need updating. That is why you should consider the process of capturing knowledge as a continuous one.

Make sure you support a process of continuous improvement. Have workflows in place for the updating, verifying and notification of the digital work instructions. Your platform should support this process and the involvement of the shop floor will bring the energy to make it happen. We have seen many databases with outdated written procedures stored somewhere on desktop computers in remote offices in plants.

Without a process, involvement and availability on the shop floor your efforts have no chance to succeed.


democratize knowledge

Make sure to read our extensive guide on how to create excellent digital work instructions here.

Picture of Annika

Annika makes it her business to share how collaborative digital work instructions help top manufacturing companies like Coca Cola, ABB, and Heineken reduce errors and downtime - all while reinvesting the expert knowledge of their frontline teams.

8 October 2018