It’s hard to believe now, but just 10 years ago, the Internet was not as ubiquitous as it is today. Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn – these words were not part of our common language. Google was just starting to become a noun and a verb – as in “you can Google that”. In Manufacturing, the Information Age was moving toward us like a slow moving volcano.
At the time I was working in a Transmission plant as an Industrial Engineering manager and was charged with organizing the company’s “Lean Implementation” documentation on the company’s Intranet (the internal Internet). I needed to learn how to use the software in order to design the website, including how to copy and paste URLs into the site to link to the documentation.
As with any new technology, there is a snowball effect. New technology often spurs more new technology and there’s technology to learn on top of existing technology. Plus you’ve got the problem of multiple folks engaging with technology (and the same information) in different ways. Much of the information I needed to link to resided on multiple employees’ hard drives. Creating an online repository where documents could be uploaded (and convincing others this was a good thing to do) was a hurdle. No small endeavor as getting product out-the-door was the focus. Taking valuable time to go through a series of steps to place information on a shared server?! Not interested. Besides, opening up the documents from the hard drive was quicker. All one had to do was access the shortcut from the desktop and there it was. This “works for me” attitude was strong. I remember seeing the power of information sharing, but not knowing how to help make it a reality. Getting others to see it and truly embrace it was a struggle.
While this was happening, we were also just getting started with using the Value Stream Mapping (VSM) methodology on the factory floor. VSM has three main flow streams – Process Flow, Material Flow, and Information Flow. Over and over again, at the end of VSM workshops, I could see the rich opportunity in working on streamlining Information Flow. But consistently the Process Flow and Material Flow streams were where all of the Kaizen Burst ideas originated. Why? Because improvement, in the form of metrics, could be visualized and tracked. Working on improving communications wasn’t as concrete an assignment, and yet it was a clear problem we needed to solve. The lack of fast interaction and reliable information was sub-optimizing our effectiveness.
The more experience I’ve gained in my career, the stronger I’ve felt about this power of improving organization effectiveness through improved information flow. This is what led me to return to the University of Michigan to pursue a master’s degree in Information Science. Most of my career has been spent on making the production floor more efficient, ie. the delivery of a product. I remember how excited I felt when I could finally spend time learning and teaching methodologies to improve the delivery of Information.
What I learned built on my Engineering background and has confirmed my belief that the lean community, and industry in general, can benefit tremendously by utilizing more efficient information/knowledge management methodologies. As my work has moved beyond the shop floor and across industries, I’ve seen how these opportunities are not unique to manufacturing. Knowledge Management, Social Media, Website Design, Search and Retrieval aides, and Digital Libraries are but a few ways to streamline information flow and they apply to almost every industry.
Here’s an idea. Library and Information Science majors should be as actively sought out as engineers are in this information rich era. Well done Intranet design can drastically reduce the amount of time that employees search for information. Having a good information governance system can enhance quality metrics by ensuring that the most recent and truly relevant data is found and utilized. Meta-data (information about information) can provide the valuable “why” things are to be done to a certain standard, as well as aid in search retrieval, while keeping documentation concise. Understanding the “why” of a standard can increase the likelihood that it will actually be followed.
I’m curious, what problems with information, information flow, and knowledge management are you experiencing?