Tribes In Your Operations


Polytron recently presented a webinar on the topic of Operational Consistency – Operator Driven Reliability focusing on stable, standardized operational processes for Operational Excellence. At its core, Operational Excellence is the state of an organization – it’s a culture, where problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership result in ongoing organizational improvement. This operational approach demands shared standards across all departments, areas, production shifts, etc. with repeatable, measurable processes. The critical interdependencies that support this foundation involve People, Procedures, and Technology.

With the awareness that an organization’s culture is a living, breathing thing, it is important to recognize that within that culture, individual “tribes” form.

What is a tribe?

A tribe is a group of people within a company or organization with its own language, customs, and traditions. For example, if Polytron has three, six-hour shifts, then each individual shift could be considered a tribe.In manufacturing, these tribes could be shifts, departments, maintenance groups, operator teams, etc. Each tribe has its own practices, processes and even language, such as referring to a piece of equipment by one name, while another shift uses an entirely different name. Often tribes will not proactively share information across the workforce and this dynamic prohibits collaborative teamwork and the sharing of best practices or innovation and this provides a catalyst for a culture change in order to reach the state of Operational Excellence.

Tribal Knowledge can hinder your productivity and efficiency or stimulate the operational consistency needed for reliability. Like any group of employees, throughout the working process, ideas and methods get passed along and altered from one employee to the next. Sometimes, the information can be falsely communicated, causing negative affects on the company. Some of these negative effects include:

  • Operating efficiency differences from one shift to the next
  • Levels of a plant’s operations to be affected
  • Changes within the business being resisted
  • Business objectives not being attained
  • Training to become more difficult
  • Proven successful practices not being properly shared

These are only some of the ways that tribes within a corporation can affect the total outcome… and everyone’s paycheck. Almost every business has that select few that has been there since the beginning of time. You know, the people who live by the standards, “my way or the highway,” because it is what has always helped them succeed in their field. Little do these employees know that their strict mindset could be affecting the total efficiency and effectiveness of the corporation they are employed by. Failure of an operation often results from a couple of reasons:

  1. The inability of long-term employees to adapt and embrace the changes in their culture
  2. The lack of cohesion that can be found from a diverse group of team members who originate from different histories, levels of experience, and team roles

Both of these reasons can result in the lack of a functional culture.

The way to build a business culture is by, first, identifying the type of organization that leadership wants, and second, being sure to identify the business objectives that the specific culture is to achieve. These two steps help assure everyone of the context by which conversations, plans, and training should be measured. Once everyone within the culture reaches an agreed understanding, the increase in work drive and efficiency will be clear. The benefits to each individual employee will be undeniably recognizable, allowing your operation to stand above others while working together to achieve success. When the groundwork is laid and the expectations are set, the next step is to take action and begin training the employees.

Creating Tribes

As a group of people work together, they begin to develop events, images, and customs that are eventually made into practical and efficient traditions. No matter what category of business you look at, each business has procedures that are adapted from prior experiences and situations that have been faced.

A key feature to remember when preparing training courses for employees is that they must be trained together. Having them together ensures that each one will hear the exact same information in the exact same way, allowing for the least amount of confusion as possible. It is essential during the training process that classes include hands-on activities, allowing for participation and team engagement. Bonds will begin to surface and a common language will form, revealing the potential needed for success.

After results were examined from previous tribe creations, it was found that hands-on activities were very effective in creating unity, common languages, and common experiences among tribe members. The activities were generated from adult learning research, which allowed for the learning tactics to be molded to fit the mindset of the employees. These languages and experiences from the activities begin to form each employee’s individual basis of Tribal Knowledge, and before you know it, your operation that was once full of scattered groups will become a sound tribe with the unity of a single culture.

Innovation Within a Tribe

The most common form of knowledge transfer in a working environment is from the top (management) to the bottom (employees). This is easy to understand because it is seen every day within households; the father passes knowledge to the son, the mother to the daughter, and so forth. The concept of learning things from a higher source is ingrained in each of us, but we cannot forget how much a higher source can learn from those beneath him/her.

Like drinking hot chocolate or eating a delicious dessert, the richness of tribal knowledge is found at the bottom… the employees. Often times it’s the people who do the hard labor that have the best suggestions for efficiency. Management should always be open and encourage comments and suggestions from their employees, and as long as efficiency and safety requirements are met, they should be open to change in procedures as well. It has been found that the consideration of employees’ ideas contributes to increasing employee morale, the reduction of effort hours, and an impact on the OEE of the line. The top is where the environment for what is and is not shared is created.

Best Practices: Operational Consistency

Standardized Best Practices support Operational Excellence by reducing system variations, enforcing safety practices, facilitating workforce development and training, assisting in performance evaluations and encouraging the evaluation of all processes.

Chances are the knowledge to create your Best Practices and SOPs already exist on your plant floor among your skilled workforce. It is most often hidden by “tribe members,” (operators) who often find new and better ways to do things not conceived, proposed or supervised by plant engineers or other leaders.

However, the knowledge the tribe holds prevents benchmarking – recording for future reference – or presenting to the group via training or knowledge transfer processes. Instead, the tribe’s improvements are passed along verbally or through other informal means. This leads to inconsistent performance throughout the tribe or shifts.

So, how do you create repeatable, measurable processes across tribes to ensure that your organization can effectively achieve and maintain operational consistency? Our proven method to create collaborative teams across tribes follows three basic steps:

  1. Documenting –Capturing the knowledge of various tribes ensures that beneficial knowledge and processes are preserved and implemented and detrimental practices are not repeated. To accomplish this, the information must be captured and disseminated. And, the recorded history must be accurate, valued and owned by the employees. The capture of this knowledge is important not only for the current workforce, but also the future workforce. The operators know the equipment and processes better than anyone else and there are Best Practices and SOPs to be created by documenting the collected knowledge. The use of activities such as direct interview, group discussion and process mapping, facilitates communication to get everyone’s input. The discussions between the various shifts and workers will reveal both good and bad practices.
  2. Implementing – Use technology enablers and formal workforce development and training to deliver this knowledge across the workforce in a standardized process for consistency. It is vital that the organization accept and integrate the implemented knowledge. From these activities, the information gathered is turned into Best Practices and developed into standards with one common language, so that everyone is “speaking the same language.” The discussions and documentation continues until the Best Practice is refined and agreed upon. This type of process is important to ensure that all of the stakeholders own the new Best Practice.
  3. Measuring the Results – by using selected Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are relevant to day-to-day tasks, the baselines for improvement are set and it is possible to identify the areas requiring improvement.

Operational Excellence is the state of an organization based on reliability through consistency and efficiency. Creating Operational Consistency is achieved through leveraging your tribes to create a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement. Overall, the measurements should improve and become more consistent across the workforce delivering data-driven results that continue to improve the baseline.

View the full presentation, Operational Consistency – Operator Driven Reliability or take a look at our tribal knowledge feature in Quality Magazine.