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Problem Solving and the Brain Drain

Posted by admin on January 16, 2013

Starting in 2011, the first of the Baby Boom generation turned 65, the traditional retirement age.  Demographers estimate that more than 7000 people per day turned 65 years old in the U.S. in 2011.  That’s a lot of proverbial gold watches!

For manufacturers, this news is a double whammy.  Because of the decline in manufacturing during the 1990s and 2000s, fewer young people chose manufacturing as a career.  This means that many manufacturers have a disproportionate group of older workers, who will be retiring in the next few years.  And it could not come at a worse time for companies, many of which are seeing an upswing in orders coming out of the recession and new demand for made-in-America products. 

For many companies these soon-to-be retirees are their most seasoned problem solvers, who carry around a ton of knowledge in their heads and notebooks (paper and digital).   Tapping that knowledge before it walks out the door is a critical challenge for management.   Here are some thoughts on how they can do it:

Ask Them – Managers and supervisors know who the best problem solvers are.  By acknowledging their expertise and asking them to share what they know, these workers are receiving the kudos they deserve.  If done in the right way, our experience has been that they will share documents and notes they created over the years.  Why?  Because if they are making the choice to leave the company of their own accord, they usually care about their co-workers and want to make their jobs as easier.  The company should collect whatever physical documentation it can.  Just as important is the knowledge that does not exist in physical form.  Managers should ask them to talk with colleagues about important problems they have solved and make sure someone gets it onto paper and into systems.

Mentoring – An informal way to pass information from workers who will be retiring is to ask them to mentor a younger employee.  This gives the younger employee a deeper history of the company and allows the retiring employee to show someone what he or she has done.  Again, it makes the older worker feel appreciated and gives the younger employee invaluable experience with someone known as a great problem solver.  And who knows, rather than just counting the days until retirement, the older worker may find new purpose in those last few months on the job.

Knowledge Management Systems – If the company doesn’t already have one, seeing a bunch of experienced workers retire drives home the need for a knowledge management (KM) system.  While most KM systems are designed for current employees to share information with each other, a KM system is also a repository for information and knowledge from people no longer at the company. A lot of the effort around KM is dedicated to the hardware and software system, but it is equally important to implement the process and performance expectations so employees share their knowledge so others can benefit.  Some employees think sharing their knowledge on a KM system makes them less valuable because the company has their best thinking.  Actually the opposite is true: By sharing their knowledge, they become known as the expert.

The retirement of a company’s best problem solvers need not be a brain drain for the company.  By employing a number of methods for them to share their information, managers and supervisors can show how important they are and can pass their knowledge to the next generation of problem solvers.