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Knowledge Sharing Barriers: How to Enable Communication on the Manufacturing Floor

Knowledge Sharing Barriers: How to Enable Communication on the Manufacturing Floor

One of the biggest challenges converters have is training their operators how to run converting machinery. No matter how thorough the documentation and the training may be, it seems like operators always have challenges when the press starts to run.

These types of communication problems aren’t confined to new equipment, nor are they specific only to the converting industry.  All manufacturers struggle with issues such as transferring knowledge from retiring employees, or sharing information on new management policies.

However, technology is helping bring down these previously insurmountable barriers. Etienne Frenette of Poka provided us with some background on the issues facing manufacturers, and how technology can help solve them.

Etienne Frenette of Poka
Etienne Frenette of Poka

The Pennsylvania Quandary: The Perfect Example of Knowledge Sharing Barrier

Poka is a 3-year-old company based in Canada. They’ve created a cloud-based software platform that allows manufacturers to retain and transfer knowledge, with the ultimate goal to “avoid repeating mistakes.”

(“Poka” is actually derived from the Japanese term, “Poka yoke,” which means “learning from your mistakes.)

The company focuses strictly on manufacturers, because Poka’s founder Alexandre Leclerc, has felt the knowledge sharing pain. Leclerc is part of a successful family business in Canada, and at a very early age, he got his first taste of how important – and difficult – knowledge sharing can be.

Why the Exact Same Plant Felt a 20% Decrease in Production

When Leclerc was 10 years old, the family decided to expand their business to America. They decided to open a plant in Pennsylvania.  And there they met a barrier that had nothing to do with language or culture. It had to do with knowledge.

The family business produced cookies and granola bars, and when they expanded to the US, they thought it would be a simple cut-and-paste procedure.They bought the same equipment, implemented the same procedures, and generally followed the previous model of success.

However, when the plant opened, production inexplicably dipped by 20%. Initially perplexed by the drop, the company eventually realized that the one thing they hadn’t duplicated was the knowledge of their senior operators.

They hadn't duplicated the knowledge of the senior operators.

The subtle lessons acquired over time, such as how to fix problems related with the changing characteristics of raw material, or how to replace a gearbox in the most time efficient manner, had never been documented.

Not Following the 70:20:10 Paradigm

Documentation is only one piece of the problem when it comes to knowledge sharing. The real issue with those Pennsylvania operators was beyond having a manual to thumb through. It has to do with how we learn.

According to the research of Charles Jennings of the 70:20:10 Institute, when we learn a task, 70% of it comes from experiential learning, 20% from observing our peers, and 10% from consulting a book or training manual.

There hasn't been an alternative.

As Etienne notes, the way we train people or transfer knowledge is exactly the opposite in most manufacturing situations. Most training occurs in a classroom setting. “This isn’t anyone’s fault,” Etienne says, “there simply hasn’t been an alternative.”

Breakdowns in Communication and Context

Manufacturing has a number of different issues in knowledge sharing. One of the main problems is you’re limited by who you can pull into a situation.  If a line goes down, for example, there traditionally have been a finite number of people in the plant who can be called in to help.

That might include people in the facility at the time, or perhaps on-call management team. “Contrast that with online education, where a student can gain access real-time to a teacher, no matter where they’re located,” Etienne said.

Even if you do fix the issue, the second problem is that the resolution, and the documentation that accompanies it, isn’t shared effectively. It remains stuck in the email chain that produced the solution, or if it is documented, it’s hard to see the context in which the problem occurred.

Communication Methods are Different on the Manufacturing Floor

Part of the reason knowledge sharing barriers exist is that there is no go-to source of information for employees on the floor.

Etienne Frenette on why communication is different on the manufacturing floor.

Administrative staff enjoys the ease of communicating via email and phone, and they also have the flexibility with their tasks to review information. But workers on the line are focused on the task at hand, and they may not have access to email.

Communication with them is much more happenstance. It may be a posting on a bulletin board, or a feed on a wall-mounted TV. There is no go-to source of information.

The communication may also not have the most efficient architecture. A company may document its processes, but this data may be stored away in network drives and folders. “You really have to determine your end goal,” Etienne said. “Are you aiming for high-level tracking, or do you want to get that worker on the night shift the info. he needs?”

Technology to the Rescue?

Poka is looking to address these issues through a system that allows for enhanced communication and collaboration.  Their system seeks to break down the knowledge barrier in a number of different ways:

Accessibility: Employees on the floor will never have access to a workstation. Poka’s system is web-based and designed to be interfaced through mobile pads.

Architecture:  Information is built around a company’s equipment. Each piece of equipment has its own page, where related information, such as procedures and troubleshooting guides, is stored and easily accessible. Procedures can be conveniently stored on video.  Equipment also uses QR codes, so employees can scan the code and instantly access the information.

Relevance: To keep updated on both internal and external information relevant to the company, Poka provides a private, secure network in which relevant information can be shared through newsfeeds.  It’s similar to social media, but much more contextual to the task at hand.

Moving the Metrics Dial

What impact does shattering the knowledge sharing barrier have on the bottom line? Etienne points to a number of different metrics in which knowledge sharing can result in trackable gains:

OEE – Easier sharing of information and processes means lines perform at similar rates and downtime is reduced. Poka has seen some companies increase their OEE from 60 to 80%, and others who were already above 85% increase by 5-6%.

Some companies have seen great OEE increases.

Safety incidents – Understanding the proper process for operating equipment and safety precautions dropped health and safety incidents in one facility from 9 cases to 2 in one year.

Engagements – So much for the digital age isolating people. Etienne noted one company experienced a 40% increase in attendance at a company Christmas party. More people were communicating with others throughout the organization.  

Whatever Choice You Make, Move Forward on Reducing the Knowledge Sharing Barrier

Whether you pursue an option like Poka or some other alternative, think strongly about toppling the knowledge sharing barrier in your company. And soon.

  • Your workforce is aging, and as they do, many processes and procedures will retire with your staff.
  • Your equipment is also becoming increasingly more complex, with the need for more timing but less capacity to allow for inefficient, in-classroom training.
  • Finally, your margins are tighter, and you need to adapt to a new paradigm before your competitors beat you to it.

Knowledge sharing is an age-old problem for any organization.  It always will be. But the latest advancements in technology have provided us with the means to bring down a once insurmountable barrier. It’s time to make communication your competitive edge.