Manufacturing Technology and the Aging Workforce

As the average manufacturing operations management worker's hair gets grayer, companies are faced with two sets of challenges. First, there’s the battle of attracting new, young employees and then grooming the talent to become the next generation of leaders. And second, the details and idiosyncrasies that make things run smoothly on the shop floor are at a higher risk of being retired rather than transferred to the next generation.

Mark Davidson, principal analyst at LNS Research
Mark Davidson, principal analyst at LNS Research

It’s no surprise that the manufacturing sector has a growing problem with its aging workforce. Partly because of the outdated perspective where one might go to work in an old factory, making sure screw A goes into hole B all day, the career path isn’t a top choice for today’s young adults. In reality, though, modern manufacturing entails a considerable amount of interaction with advanced technologies and interesting applications that require a diverse and educated skillset.

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As the average manufacturing operations management worker’s hair gets grayer, companies are faced with two sets of challenges. First, there’s the battle of attracting new, young employees and then grooming the talent to become the next generation of leaders. And second, manufacturers have to face the reality that the details and idiosyncrasies that make things run smoothly on the shop floor are at a higher risk of being retired rather than transferred to the next generation.

This article and its second part next month will focus on the latter challenge and the efforts that organizations are taking to preserve and leverage tribal knowledge.

Approaches to preserving tribal knowledge
Manufacturing workers aren’t simply expected to produce products over and over again; they’re also expected to apply their knowledge to continuously rise to new levels of efficiency and productivity by measuring and improving processes. As knowledge slowly fades away because of retiring expertise and the lack of knowledge transfer to younger workers, the real danger becomes that organizations could lose the ability to innovate and drive manufacturing competitiveness forward. Market leaders are taking several measures to make sure functional depth gets passed along and to enable this type of innovative environment.

Knowledge and Document Management Initiatives. Many companies are making use of solutions such as knowledge management systems, which essentially compile all process and procedural documentation, and training materials in one place. Rather than allowing this critical information to be scattered across different manuals and computers at distributed workcenters, organizations are aggregating it and creating global best practices.

Standardizing Processes. Just because one plant or division or region is doing something one way, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Manufacturers are evaluating the effectiveness of processes across the enterprise, identifying areas for global synergies, and standardizing when applicable. This not only allows the “best of the best practices” to be shared across an enterprise, but also simplifies knowledge transfer and enables more universal talent sharing and moving across an organization.

Understanding Exception Processes. Manufacturers focus considerable efforts on standardizing processes with the assumption that things will run smoothly. However, there are some things you cannot plan for. Identifying and recording exceptions, along with expanding or modifying procedures for when these situations reoccur, can help to reduce risk and improve the ability to respond to adverse events during production.

Escalation Policies. Developed out of experience, many plants have tacit processes for escalating issues. For instance, if a particular manufacturing nonconformance transpires, a line worker could notify a manager. However, when that worker retires, handling future instances of that nonconformance might be left to the discretion of a new employee without formal escalation policies in place. Escalation policies and procedures need to be part of the important knowledge that is documented and transferred across an organization.

Automating Work Processes. To reduce risk and variability across the enterprise, companies are increasingly taking efforts to systematize manual processes. Manufacturing software is driving the ability to capture knowledge and automate work processes where possible, allowing the broader enterprise to benefit from best practices.

In general, software has revolutionized how business is conducted. Next month, we will explore the capability to capture and analyze large amounts of operations and performance data.

>> Mark Davidson is principal analyst at LNS Research (www.lnsresearch.com). He previously served in various leadership roles for Invensys.

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