Operator agency in process intervention: tampering versus application of tacit knowledge
Statistical process control (SPC) theory takes a negative view of adjustment of process settings, which is termed tampering. In contrast, quality and lean programmes actively encourage operators to acts of intervention and personal agency in the improvement of production outcomes. This creates a conflict that requires operator judgement: How does one differentiate between unnecessary tampering and needful intervention? Also, difficult is that operators apply tacit knowledge to such judgements. There is a need to determine where in a given production process the operators are applying tacit knowledge, and whether this is hindering or aiding quality outcomes. The work involved the conjoint application of systems engineering, statistics, and knowledge management principles, in the context of a case study. Systems engineering was used to create a functional model of a real plant. Actual plant data were analysed with the statistical methods of ANOVA, feature selection, and link analysis. This identified the variables to which the output quality was most sensitive. These key variables were mapped back to the functional model. Fieldwork was then directed to those areas to prospect for operator judgement activities. A natural conversational approach was used to determine where and how operators were applying judgement. This contrasts to the interrogative approach of conventional knowledge management. Data are presented for a case study of a meat rendering plant. The results identify specific areas where operators’ tacit knowledge and mental model contribute to quality outcomes and untangles the motivations behind their agency. Also evident is how novice and expert operators apply their knowledge differently. Novices were focussed on meeting throughput objectives, and their incomplete understanding of the plant characteristics led them to inadvertently sacrifice quality in the pursuit of productivity in certain situations. Operators’ responses to the plant are affected by their individual mental models of the plant, which differ between operators and have variable validity. Their behaviour is also affected by differing interpretations of how their personal agency should be applied to the achievement of production objectives. The methodology developed here is an integration of systems engineering, statistical analysis, and knowledge management. It shows how to determine where in a given production process the operator intervention is occurring, how it affects quality outcomes, and what tacit knowledge operators are using. It thereby assists the continuous quality improvement processes in a different way to SPC. A second contribution is the provision of a novel methodology for knowledge management, one that circumvents the usual codification barriers to knowledge management.