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Process Knowledge and Content Knowledge. Which is more important?

Intense business challenges demand the involvement of everyone, from the CEO to the shop floor operators. Too many business leaders think that the immediate solution to any major challenge is to assemble a team of experts. They are entrenched in the belief that it is with content knowledge that they can battle all business challenges and leap over any obstacles during turbulent times. Some argue that their employees are good enough and all they need is some “polishing” in their expertise. As a result, abundant resources are spent on hiring and technical training engagements. But little do these business leaders realize that content expertise is a blind spot that prevents them from consciously recognizing what else their employees really need.

Organizations should equip their employees with both process and content knowledge. Like two hands or two feet, both are needed to support each other to complete many activities. People are often so engrossed in believing content knowledge is the key to answering all problems, they never realize the importance of process knowledge. Sometimes, the employees are blamed. We frequently hear that employees are not bright enough, they are sent back for training, they are not right for the job, that people in this country are of bad quality, and more.
In TV shows like “CSI”, we watch a group of experts find and collect evidence laying around the crime scene, scraping off dried blood, hair, skin tissues underneath the nails, and whatnot. But often this evidence is only one of the ingredients needed to convict the culprit of the crime. The investigators need to put together a “theory” to convince the court on how the evidence links and explains all. If the theory claims the victim was stabbed to death; then the evidence must show that the fingerprints on the weapon match the culprit’s and the wounds found on the victim’s body match the weapon. The evidence is the “Content” and to formulate a theory is the “Process.” These two are inseparably linked.

Content v. Process

While content and process are related, they are different in nature. The increased proficiency of one, does not directly improve the other and vice versa. Content knowledge is the subject matter or discipline that one knows after experience or exposure. You can increase your exposure and involvement in a particular field, but if the approaches to utilise all this content knowledge are not sophisticated enough, it still will lead to an undesirable outcome. Knowing content and being able to use it involve separate skills.
Consider a group of employees who are called in to remedy a business challenge. The employees are specialists in all of the required areas of expertise; each one of them has unique experiences and knowledge to contribute. While they may know that “a problem well defined is half solved”, outcomes are rarely encouraging without a process for using expertise. Too often resources are wasted in meetings, trial and error, and rework—not because these employees do not want resolution; they simply do not know how to get there. Lacking a commonly accepted language or procedure, the discussion lacks a fruitful outcome.

Consider the case of the “nodules”

A plant that provides surface plating to its clients worldwide found “nodules” on bushing components during quality inspection. The bushings were the biggest components being plated in every batch. While the silver coat thickness was within specifications, the surface had small, lump like defects, known as “nodules” instead of the required smooth surface. Nodules of various sizes were seen on the bushing surface since the beginning of production, mainly on the first and second rows of the jigs in every batch. Sometimes the entire batch had to be reworked.
Because all of the components were made from the same material and only varied in size, everyone suspected that the nodules were caused by defective incoming raw materials: stained incoming. They took samples of all the materials but there were no traces of stain found. What followed were investigations of other possible root causes and abundant finger pointing. “It must be some kind of contamination from the construction site next door”. “Vibration caused the silver particles to fall off the surface easily”. “We all followed procedures and we did not do anything new, something must have been overlooked by the maintenance team”. “Sales didn’t know what orders to sign in, all they care about is meeting their sales target”.

As time went on, none of the investigations or accusations pointed to root cause or a subsequent solution. The only action taken was to react to the defects. All the defective bushings were sent for rework, the plating process remained unchanged and the reject rate remained high.
After a year, due to low demand from the market, bushings were not required in as high a volume. Demand was focused on smaller components that didn’t require bushings and more and more plating batches were processed without bushings. As quality improved, one engineer asked: “Why are there no nodules being reported on the smaller components?” That was indeed a good question. The team looked at the plating process and put together a process map, but couldn’t find anything helpful. The next question asked was: “What is so special about the bushing as compared to the other components?” The answer was obvious: “bigger in size”. This led to the question, ”what is the connection between bigger size and the defect?” An expert suggested that the bigger size made it more susceptible to having tiny silver particles in the silver bath rest on the surface. As the thin film of silver slowly built up, the silver particles slowly evolved into nodules. The first two rows of the jigs where most nodules were found, seemed to explain it.

A Simple Solution

The solution was an additional filter with a buffer tank that contained the small particles from entering the silver bath. The total cost was less than $US150. But it took a year to find cause and resolve the nodule issue. Didn’t these experts have all the knowledge they needed to resolve the problem? Why had they missed out on the fix for such a long time?
The reasons are simple. They were new to producing these components. They accepted that the formation of nodules was an inherent factor for this material and since the bushings were the highest volume components, they were more likely to have rejects. It was easy to explain that this was why bushings kept having nodules.

So what went wrong? Was it the content knowledge? Not quite. What this group of experts needed was a method to help them to put their thinking and action together to overcome the problem. They needed simple, sensible guidelines and procedures expressed in a commonly understood language—a process. They simply lacked a process to help them organise their thoughts and use their expertise. Without an organized process they neglected all the obvious, simple facts that were available since the beginning.

In this illustration, imagine that the inputs or data are light; the process is a magnifying glass and the output is a focused point of the light. Process is used to concentrate the inputs and focus them on a common goal: solving the problem. A process goes very far to bridge differences as well as individual functions and tasks with team members. It allows team members to carry out responsibilities concurrently with little or no duplication allowing each team member to give their full contribution. Also, the team remains focused as new or inessential tasks are eliminated.

How Top Performers Work

The top performing employees are not always the most experienced, knowledgeable or academically qualified. Top performers know what inputs they possess or lack and they don’t jump to conclusions hastily and without good reason. They follow and subscribe to a set of systematic processes to gather relevant factual data and follow logical thinking steps even under pressure. They are good at asking effective questions and, as their content knowledge grows over the years, they are better at using it effectively.

Quality Input + Quality Process = Quality Output

It is important to note that a process will not help without the required content knowledge. Again, while it is true that: “a problem well defined is half solved”, it still must rely on expertise. Without the required content knowledge, it doesn’t matter if a business challenge is put through a world-class process, you are merely following an organized path to a dead-end. The Crime Scene Investigators will fail to convince the court without enough solid evidence to support their theory!

The Key Takeaway

Expertise alone is not enough. Employees need both content and process to meet business challenges. They are equally important and work together seamlessly to resolve issues. Your thoughts?


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