Decades ago, before globalization led to the expansion of supply chains and outsourced labor, machine shop workers cemented their employment status by building a well of “tribal knowledge” that they more or less kept to themselves.
Being the only person who knew all the tricks of the trade was a reliable means of job security when the only competition was other machinists in the area. But in today’s global economy, that old mindset is becoming less and less relevant.
In fact, if modern machine shop owners don’t lead the way in overcoming the tribal knowledge approach, the future of their businesses could be in jeopardy.
Moving Beyond Tribal Knowledge In Manufacturing
If your machine shop has a team of long-time employees who have honed their skills over decades, the dangers of tribal knowledge may not even be on your radar—but they will be soon.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a projected 47,500 job openings for machinists and tool and die makers each year for the next decade. Many manufacturing workers are retiring out of the workforce or transferring to different occupations—and when they go, they’ll take all their valuable tribal knowledge with them.
If modem machine shop owners don’t put in the effort to extract critical knowledge from their workers’ brains now, that information will eventually disappear before their eyes.
How to Run a Machine Shop That Goes beyond Tribal Knowledge
The good news is that shop owners can create a cultural shift that supports sharing information and ensures continuity even when employees move on. Here are some helpful starting points:
- Acknowledge the problem. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting that there is one. Modern machine shop owners must accept that their employees will eventually leave and take their knowledge with them. Taking action today can insulate shop owners from that blow in the future.
- Bring everyone up to speed. It’s critical to train employees of all ages and skill levels to share the information and resources that make up tribal knowledge. Provide reassurances that doing so won’t affect their job security. Most employees want their company to succeed after their departure, and they may not realize that sharing their knowledge is one way to accomplish that goal.
- Use incentives. Effecting change isn’t always easy. Your employees may still feel protective of their tribal knowledge, so offer incentives for them to share it. Any upfront investments you make will prove worthwhile in the long run.
- Document processes. Documenting and digitizing processes is a key way to overcome the barriers that tribal knowledge presents. There are plenty of industry experts who can help your shop take these steps. If you’re ISO certified, you’re doing most of this work already, so give yourself a pat on the back!
- Standardize procedures. Implementing standard procedures will enable work to continue seamlessly when employees are on PTO or leave the company. If one of your workers appears to be the only person who can do their specific job, begin establishing a set of instructions and protocols that other team members can easily replicate.
Knowledge is power—and knowledge sharing is key to a healthy modern machine shop. Think of your company like an ever-expanding ladder. Why would you want anyone to traverse the rungs you’ve already climbed? Shops with employees who actively help one another up the ladder will always rise above the rest.
At NTMA, we encourage all of our members to think about the future of their shops. Join NTMA today for helpful information about how to run a machine shop!