Executives often tell me they are interested in bringing knowledge transfer to their workforce because they “need consistency.” But when does consistency or adherence to a standard set by an expert in a workforce really matter in knowledge transfer? Here, in a nutshell, is a simple illustration of the challenge:
If all the cooks at a restaurant need to be able to make vegetable soup, is it necessary that they all follow the head chef’s recipe and produce a soup that is exactly consistent with the chef’s own soup? Or, is it o.k. if they all produce a soup that is done on time, is relatively tasty, and includes the main ingredients promised on the menu? Maybe it is o.k. to make whatever type of vegetable soup they like as long as no customers complain? Imagine running a restaurant without having this expectation clearly understood.
Knowledge Transfer Gives A Structure to Address Job Role Consistency
Lately I’ve seen a rise in businesses struggling with consistency questions. One blue chip medical devices manufacturing company that recently followed a workforce risk assessment process my consulting company uses found that the four operators on their production line who were considered “expert” in a given role—and who had been asked to transfer their knowledge—were each teaching their apprentices in a different way.
If you’re like this biotech client, the question then becomes: is it ok to have four different “standards” for one product’s manufacturing process? Sometimes the answer is yes, because there is no great cost to inconsistency and the importance of freedom to innovate is critical to the success of the business. But if not, your team or your team’s manager had better decide what is the best practice and which of the four experts becomes the keeper of the standard to which all others will adhere.
For one of my clients in R&D, the challenge was that their people who sit between research & development and the factory in Asia need to be able to “build” relationships, “push back” on troubling design challenges, and say “no” in a culturally appropriate way. Each of these skills can be executed in many ways, of course, but is there a right way? Is there value in having some consistency in the way employees tackle the same issues? Maybe yes, maybe no—but the answer should not be left up to chance. This is a decision that must be made early and communicated to the whole team. This will ensure that the experts we call on to transfer their knowledge are the ones we truly want to replicate.
And, when we ask our experts to “set the standard,” we should be very clear about what that means. Do we want our experts to teach an exacting step-by-step process (make the chef’s soup) or do we them to set some general boundaries and provide feedback when one of their co-workers steps outside of those boundaries (make whatever soup you want but it has to be a vegetable soup and not chicken noodle)? Anywhere on this broad continuum of required consistency is ok, as long as it is decided and clearly known by everyone involved. Answering these questions is also necessary groundwork for successful knowledge transfer.
So here are five steps for thinking about and improving consistency with your organization:
- Agree with your managers and colleagues on the degree of importance of consistency and adherence to a standard in the work you do. Some teams will need to be far more careful than others.
- Discuss the costs of inconsistency and ensure they are well known and tangible to everyone. Costs could be in productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, rework, expenses, etc.
- Set a goal for reducing the costs of inconsistency.
- Decide who sets the standard, the scope of the standard (e.g. one approach or anywhere within a range of set “best practices”) and who monitors everyone else’s adherence to the standard.
- Create opportunities to transfer knowledge and expertise from those who are setting the standard to those who will follow it.