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Departments: First Word


Tribal Knowledge
Documenting your procedures is easy;
getting people to use them is difficult.

Scott Paton

I admit it. I’m not the world’s greatest manager. I’m not the world’s near-greatest manager. In fact, I’m probably near the bottom of the managerial scale. I don’t delegate when I should. I’m more like a one-week (some might say one weak) manager than a one-minute manager. I don’t praise my employees enough, and I’m often too vague when I want something done: “I think it might be good if perhaps we maybe did X, Y and Z.”

I know all the managerial theory, I’ve got the business degree and I’ve read all the books. I mean well, but I just get preoccupied. Maybe I have some type of managerial attention-deficit disorder. I’m just more comfortable writing and editing than I am being the boss.

I also have the distinct disadvantage of being a manager in a small company. I don’t have the luxury of just being a manager. I have “real” work to do. You know, all that writing and editing. Don’t you just pity my poor staff? (Don’t feel too bad for them; I’ll never live this down.)

I suspect that many of our readers are in the same boat. As quality departments continue to disappear, the responsibility for quality spreads across the organization. That means in addition to being responsible for getting quality products/and or services out the door, quality managers are spending more of their time managing people.

You’d think that with all of their great quality knowledge, quality managers would be high-quality managers. After all, there are all of those documented procedures that ISO 9000 has wrought. Thanks to the ISOcrats, our organizations are teeming with procedures and work instructions that tell us how to do everything from building flawless parts to where to dump the trash. Surely, all the overburdened quality manager (or editor) has to do is open a binder or look up the appropriate procedure on his or her company’s intranet, and the secret to managerial success is at hand.

If only it were that easy. Although quality management systems, such as ISO 9001, capture the procedures and instructions, they don’t capture the “tribal knowledge” of the organization. Tribal knowledge is the organizational wisdom that isn’t documented.

Even though ISO 9001 provides an outline of how to build an effective quality management system, it doesn’t--despite many consultants’ exhortations to the contrary--tell you how to be a good manager or a good businessperson. I’ve discovered that documenting your procedures is easy; getting people to use them is difficult.

One of my employees, who of course has the distinct disadvantage of having me for a manager, recently remarked about how we operate solely on tribal knowledge. At first, I was offended. After all, we do have procedures and work instructions. Why didn’t this employee (and the rest of my employees) use them? Aside from my obvious lack of managerial expertise, I think it’s easier for an organization to operate from tribal knowledge than from documented procedures and work instructions. After all, who wants to deal with checking and updating procedures when they can just “wing it”?

It’s my observation--perhaps I’ll call it “Paton’s Law of Tribal Knowledge”--that it’s easier for employees to complain about something than it is for them to correct the problem, take steps to prevent it from occurring again and document the process, particularly when they have a less-than-perfect manager.

Send your thoughts on tribal knowledge, quality management systems and referrals to remedial manager lessons to letters@qualitydigest.com.