A variety of events during the last several years have transformed the workplace. The pandemic. The great resignation. Labor shortages. Supply chain issues. Knowledge management, which was once a less important concern, has now become critical.
Companies that can capture, utilize, and improve upon their collective knowledge to improve their processes, training, and products have a definite advantage in today’s turbulent marketplace.
Fortunately, even before this maelstrom of change hit the world, New Berlin Plastics was already committed to robust knowledge management practices. This mindset has helped it to remain agile and responsive to the needs of its customers.
The foundation: A learning culture
The New Berlin Plastics leadership team recognizes that it needs to hire people who are curious and have a passion for learning and contributing to a winning team.
“When we’re interviewing candidates, we want to make sure that they understand the culture they’re stepping into and how to participate actively in it,” explains NBP President Jim Schneberger. “One of our values embodies the idea that everyone who works here needs to be an asset and contribute to the success of the company. That means supporting your teammates throughout the organization so that we can all be more successful.”
This sounds obvious. But he points out that many people come from companies where that’s not the case. Coworkers don’t support each other; rather, the goal is to look out for yourself and make it through the next shift.
Once new hires join the NBP team, they’re expected to learn and grow. “We want them to be an active participant in the business and take advantage of the training and mentoring opportunities we make available to them. We also provide them with regular updates on the state of the business, including our goals, priorities, and challenges. We want them to have a rich, contextual knowledge of the business which is one key component of decentralized control,” Schneberger says.
Once again, this is something that most business leaders never get around to doing. Providing this type of progress report tends to take a back seat to other urgent priorities. But it’s critical to building loyalty, commitment, and a culture of excellence. Most younger workers expect this kind of transparency.
The body of knowledge
NBP’s thorough approach to knowledge management begins with its body of knowledge. Dan Manning, Director of Engineering, explains how his team utilizes it to prepare new customer parts for production:
“We’ve thoroughly documented our entire process, from the receipt of a customer purchase order through transferring the part to production. We’ve got standard project templates that outline each step of our process, which help us to get up to speed on new projects faster. We’ve got checklists to validate inputs and verify outputs for each phase of our processes. And we’ve got guidelines, which are essentially training documents to help workers with remedial, on-demand learning.”
As part of its mission of continuous improvement, the NBP engineering team seeks new insights to do their jobs better. “It’s not uncommon for them to ask questions of our engineering partners or the authors of technical articles in our industry,” Schneberger adds. “This kind of dialogue helps us to become better, faster and stronger at what we do.”
The engineering team has developed project templates that speed up the onboarding and management of new parts. They contain detailed processes, checklists, and other supporting documentation that help move them into production faster. Examples include templates for domestic, offshore, and transferred molds as well as engineering changes to existing parts.
When you think of a checklist, you probably envision a clipboard that holds a sheet of paper with a series of steps or items that a worker can check off as he or she completes them. However, that’s not what a checklist looks like at New Berlin Plastics. They are sophisticated, interactive tools that often contain spaces to capture assumptions, data, and calculations.
“They give us places to show our work. They provide us with documentation that’s auditable. If we encounter a problem, we can go back and walk through the assumptions that led to the decisions we arrived at,” Schneberger emphasizes.
Examples include DFM (design for molding/manufacturability) and mold design checklists.
Guidelines are concise learning documents that arm engineers and production workers with everything they need to perform common tasks. These step-by-step instructions are immediately available when employees have a question.
“There are certain duties of your job that you may only perform from time to time. You may have forgotten exactly how they’re done,” Schneberger recalls. “These guidelines serve as on-demand memory joggers. They help our people stay productive and follow the correct procedures for those key tasks.”
An important part of being a learning organization is continually improving your processes. That means eliminating as many potential failure modes as possible. NBP’s engineering team uses a tool called a Process Failure Mode Effects Analysis (PFMEA) to surface and mitigate potential risks. These assessments are conducted as a team, which includes a quality engineer, process engineer, and project engineer at minimum.
They look at each process and ask, “How could it fail?” and assign a numerical value to three dimensions, on a scale of 1 to 10:
- The severity of the impact if the failure takes place
- The likelihood of the failure taking place
- The likelihood of detecting the failure
These three scores are multiplied together to generate a risk priority number. It enables the team to determine which potential risks exceed NBP’s risk threshold and require a corrective action.
“If a risk priority number is high, you’ve got to look at your process and determine first, how can you reduce the likelihood of failure and, second, how can you improve the detection until you reach a level that’s acceptable.” Schneberger emphasizes.
As the team develops solutions to mitigate these risks, the resulting changes are built into its templates, ensuring that the lessons learned are captured for future project launches.
In addition to formal risk assessments, NBP’s project engineers meet weekly to share lessons learned. These meetings also frequently result in updates to checklists and guidelines, ensuring that they, and the production team, are always working with the most up-to-date knowledge.
“We treat them as dynamic, living documents,” Manning says.
The bottom line is that these knowledge management tools, processes, and practices help New Berlin Plastics to operate at a high level of competency and efficiency, exceeding its customers’ expectations.
What would a plastic injection molder look like if it didn’t have such a rigorous approach to knowledge management?
“Undoubtedly, they’d be wasting a lot of time and energy, figuring out how to get people up to speed so they can be assets to the organization and how to retain them. High-performance employees can tell the difference between companies that get it and those that don’t. If you’re not meeting their expectations, they will leave,” Schneberger surmises.
“From an engineering and production standpoint, they would probably be reinventing the wheel over and over again, possibly without realizing it, and introducing variation into their processes. That would make them much less competitive,” he concludes.