Thursday, 5 March 2020

How to remove waste from Knowledge Management

This updated reprise from the archives uses the Lean Supply Chain as an analogy for KM, and suggests ways in which we can remove waste from Knowledge Management.


There is a lot of value on using metaphors as different ways to look at KM, this blog has frequently used the metaphor of a Supply Chain.

Knowledge has a user - the knowledge worker who needs to make a decision or plan an action - and it has a source - usually someone else's experience, or the synthesised knowledge of a community of practice. The KM supply chain consists of getting the knowledge from the source to the user in the most effective,  efficient and timely manner.

In the industrial world, much work has been done on the concept of  a Lean Supply Chain - one in which all waste has been removed.  A Lean supply chain is one where components reach the manufacturer "just in time", with minimal additional processing, and in a form where they can be used immediately.

Can we eliminate the waste from our Knowledge supply chain, and end up with Lean Knowledge Management -  where knowledge reaches the knowledge worker "just in time", with minimal additional processing, and in a form where it can be applied immediately?

Let's look at the 7 wastes identified within Lean, and see what we can do to reduce these in the KM context.

Waste #1. Over-production—producing more than and/or ahead of demand.  

Over-production of Knowledge is very common in Knowledge Management.  We see this particularly in push-based enterprise social media, where we can be bombarded with hundreds of messages, very few of which are relevant. This blog post describes overproduction taken to the extreme, with massive push of (often duplicated) content resulting in destruction of value, with people spending far more time creating content, than time was saved re-using it. It is no coincidence that Lean Supply Chain is pull-based, and Lean Knowledge Management should be pull-based as well.

Waste #2. Waiting. 

Knowledge Management can be really helpful, but only if the knowledge arrives on time to impact the decision. A lean KM supply chain will focus on the "clock speed" of KM, to ensure questions receive answers as soon as possible, and new knowledge is identified and embedded into process within minimum time.

 Waste # 3. Unnecessary transport of materials.

In our knowledge management world, this really refers to hand-off, and to whether the chain between knowledge supplier and knowledge user can be made as short as possible. Communities of practice, for example, where "ask the audience"-type questions can be asked, and answered directly by the knowledge holder, will minimise the number of handoffs.  With a large community of practice, everyone is at One Degree of Separation.

Waste # 4. Non-value added processing—doing more work than is necessary. 

We often see this in lesson-learning systems, where the work of sifting and sorting multiple lessons or multiple search-hits has to be done by the knowledge user (the knowledge user searches the system, finds 20 hits giving conflicting or multiple advice, and needs to work out which is right, which is misleading, which can be combined, and which is obsolete). Far better is a system where the sifting and sorting is done once, at source, by the lessons management team or the relevant subject matter expert, so that right answers are combined and preserved and obsolete knowledge removed. Then instead of each reader doing the work of synthesis, the knowledge arrives already synthesised.

 Waste # 5. Unnecessary motion. 

In KM terms, this could be unnecessary online motion - the need to visit multiple databases, multiple knowledge bases, a separate CoP system, another place for Yammer feed etc. It is unfortunately all too common to see a KM platform with separate areas for Standards, Best Practice, Lessons Learned, Video etc, so a person searching for knowledge on a topic - Electrical Engineering Tools for example -  will need to look in all four areas t get a complete picture. Far better to have a topic based portal, where the Electrical Engineer Tools section of the portal or wiki will contain standards, best practices and lessons on the topic of Electrical Engineer Tools, with embedded video from the subject matter experts where appropriate.

Waste # 6. Excess inventory— frequently resulting from overproduction.  

Lessons systems jammed with lessons, hundreds of hits from the search engine, knowledge bases crammed with near-duplicate content, or obsolete content, or contradictory content - all of these represent the waste associated with excess inventory. Part of the role of the process owner in KM is to ensure that the knowledge inventory is well managed and free from dross.  This does not mean eliminating knowledge which might be useful some day; it means eliminating duplicates, wrong knowledge, and otherwise removing noise from the system and leaving the signal behind.

Waste # 7. Defects, or the cost of wrong knowledge. 

Wrong knowledge is worse than no knowledge. Any KM system needs to have a quality assurance step, whether this is Community QA of a wiki, or editorial QA of a knowledge base, of Quality Assurance of lessons at source through use of good facilitation.


The lean supply chain analogy allows us a new way to look at KM, and the 7 wastes give us a filter for improving the way we work. If we could make our KM supply chains truly lean, we could considerably improve the way our organisations use knowledge.


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