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Capturing Knowledge of Retiring Boomers

Much of the success of post-war Japanese manufacturers depended on the availability of dedicated skilled workers whose expertise and experience kept churning out high quality products globally and running the plants at the top efficiency.

Nicknamed “Generation Dankai” (army of boomers), these first-generation post-war baby boomers, now in their late 50s-60s, have been invaluable assets to their companies and the nation’s industrial strength.

Even though they account for only about 10% of the nation’s entire workforce, Generation Dankai represents a significant percentage of skilled labor in manufacturing – as much as 40% at some companies. This is because the nation’s prolonged recession in the last decades put a brake on hiring and as a result companies are stretched thin on crucial middle-aged workers. Japanese manufacturers have been racing against time to train young workers before Generation Dankai hits retirement age en masse.

For example, a textile producer, Teijin, appointed about 70 veteran employees in their late 50s as factory floor leaders. They are paid up to $2,500 extra to pass down their expertise to younger workers, such as how to keep machines running at maximum efficiency. Other companies are overhauling employee training programs, rehiring retired workers as full-time instructors, standardizing training programs, or even adding trainer lines to existing plants or setting up “mother plants” near R&D centers to serve as cutting-edge production training centers for young workers as well as for overseas factories. [The Nikkei Weekly, April 24, 2006]

Japanese manufacturers' efforts to pass on skills

Companies are also renewing their appreciation for QFD. They see it as a natural tool for managing and transferring the internal know-how to the next generation of workers because of QFD’s ability to document, organize, and communicate complex ideas system-wide.

“The R&D process results in knowledge. Usually a great deal of this knowledge remains tacit. Tacit knowledge obviously is a concealed source of competitive advantage. To reveal their knowledge, employees need a means of communication. QFD will be suggested to serve as a communication structure.” [Greald Henstra, Jo M. L. van Engelen, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, 1999 Symposium on QFD]

A presenter from Toshiba Systems & Software Research Lab proposed the concept of “QFD Database,” a network structure which connects all information systematically, allowing all shareholders in product planning and design to share internally accumulated intellectual property.

“All information obtained through the QFD process can be stored into a QFD Database and shared among projects. When we develop a new product, we can refer to the information of similar products in the past and use it as a template. This will allow us to concentrate on the new, dissimilar features of a new product, thereby cutting down the development time.” [K. Noguchi, 1998 Symposium on QFD]

Conceptual Diagram of QFD Database (PDF)

Experienced companies in Japan have used QFD documents to pro-actively identify and prevent potential problems in a new product. Kawasaki Heavy Industry reported:

“In the past, our QA activities concentrated on recurrence prevention of manufacturing quality problems. An analysis result revealed, however, that majority of the causes that brought out defects could be attributed to upstream process of Design, Contract, Procurement, and so forth. We use QFD to strengthen our quality assurance in design process. Also, if a claim occurs with a product, we can go back to the QFD records and trace back where we might have overlooked, correct the problem quickly, and prevent a similar problem in a future product.” [S. Yamamoto, 1996 Symposium on QFD]

U.S. companies, too, are recognizing the value of QFD to document “tribal knowledge,” i.e., the tacit knowledge accumulated by soon-to-be retirees, before they head into their golden years. A “doughnut” hole in hiring levels over the past two decades must be filled, or companies may suffer a serious loss of experience and know-how. For this, use the Knowledge-driven QFD and other advanced deployments. To learn more, please join us in the next public course.

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© QFD Institute / Glenn Mazur  


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