How to Avoid Losing Retiring Employees’ Business Experience

Dr Anthony Kenneson-Adams. DBA. MA. BSc(Hons). FIoL, Head of Learning and Knowledge Transfer, Project7 Consultancy

Posted 12/5/2023

The last of the ‘baby boomer’ generation are now retiring from the workplace. As they walk out of the door of your business for the last time, they are taking with them a lifetime’s experience from old-school apprenticeship programmes to a lifetime of fault diagnosis and learning in the ‘university of life.’ That experience is what helped your business grow, become successful, and kept your customers happy and returning with repeat orders! So, what can be achieved in the time before valued employees retire; to capture that knowledge so your business can maintain the momentum that was enabled by your retirees. The businesses I have worked with fall into three categories when it comes to knowledge capture and knowledge transfer from retirees:

  1. Those who have an organic plan for retention of knowledge.
  2. Those who have a last-minute scramble to retain what they can.
  3. Those who live to regret not having had any plan. 

image showing knowledge transfer

Organic Plan for Knowledge Transfer

Those with an organic plan for knowledge transfer are by far the most successful at not experiencing that Monday morning feeling of, “Now what do we do? We can’t even turn on the plant compressor!” (true story) or, “Carol retired, and we don’t know what she did!”

Here I will try to formalise my experience to provide you with some simple steps to build your own organic plan for knowledge capture.

Knowledge Capture and Knowledge Transfer

Firstly, knowledge capture is a very specific skill that requires training; an inquisitive nature; patience and time to sit, listen and record the voice of experience. Either train your own people in this very specific skill or bring someone in with the skill set you need to at least get you started. 

Once you have the skill set, capturing an individual’s experience to pass it on to others before that experienced employee retires can be done through two main knowledge transfer methodologies: documentation and mentoring and training. 

Documentation

Every process that your business depends on, from completing a purchase order, to fitting a new bearing to a machine, to how to efficiently load a truck and maximise the space, etc. should be documented irrespective of people leaving your business. In terms of business continuity, your business should not be limited just because somebody is on vacation, has been promoted, is in a course, or has had an internal business move. 

If you use an ongoing business practice of building Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that reflect the best practice of your business, are simply constructed, are as visual as possible, and as intuitive as possible, training time should be at an absolute minimum when you lose an experienced employee. 

An example of this is building ‘Operator Care Manuals’ in a paper converting plant as part of the introduction of an Autonomous Maintenance regime. Using skills analysis, I was able to capture the set-up routines and troubleshooting charts for some very complex machinery. This task took a number of weeks per machine and used the experience of all operators across all shifts. As we made it completely visual we did not have issues of having to train in multiple languages (we had a team made up of Africans, Americans, and Spanish-speaking South Americans). The proof of the success of this visual document was that I was then able to setup the machine and start it up unaided. We also improved OEE by 7% in the first week as a happy bonus.

Visual methods are now expected by the post millennial generations, and they also make good business sense. If a picture labelled with a few arrows can replace pages of explanation, it makes business sense to be visual. Even better, everyone now carries a smart phone, so once you have decided on best practice, take a video of the processes and place them on a company server or in the cloud. This has the extra advantage that the videos can be recorded at almost no cost and use the native speakers as the actors, avoiding the language problem all together.

retiring reliability engineer knowledge transfer

Mentoring and Shadowing

Companies with a focus on business continuity use Mentoring and Shadowing to great effect. I once worked with a very forward-thinking paper plant that brought in recently graduated mechanics and employed them six months ahead of a planned retirement so the experienced millwright could pass on their knowledge across the range of work the new mechanic was expected to master. Pairing up the retiring individual with a younger employee to benefit from their expertise was great for business continuity. 

This mentoring and shadowing relationship allows the retiree to pass on their knowledge directly to someone who can apply it in their work. Shadowing arrangements can also be set up, where the retiring individual allows others (new and current colleagues) to observe and learn from their daily tasks and decision-making processes. This is also a great opportunity to ensure that the SOPs get a final review before the retiree leaves for their well-earned retirement. 

Last Minute Scramble for Planned Knowledge Transfer

If you suddenly realise that your employee Susan only has a few weeks or a month before she is retiring, you must prioritise her time for planned knowledge transfer. I would suggest the following:

  1. Task Prioritisation. Get someone, ideally Susan’s replacement, to sit with her, draw up a prioritised list of everything she does, and link that list to current SOPs.
  2. Record. Where there are no SOPs or videos of Susan doing the task or talking in detail through the task, including the nuances of what she does, who she speaks to, when the tasks need to be done, who else understands the task, etc. By doing this you have a record that can be transcribed later.
  3. Phase Retirement/Part Time Knowledge Transfer. If the business sees value in recording Susan’s knowledge but there is not sufficient time available, consider if Susan can come back a couple of days a week after her retirement date to document what she does, ideally with her replacement. This will not only capture data for the business, but will also help Susan phase into retirement (which has been seen as valuable for mental health). 
  4. Ongoing Mentoring. Just because someone has retired, it doesn’t mean they no longer exist. With prior arrangement, they may be open to taking phone calls for a period of time to answer questions or help with the induction of the new employee. You can also invite the retiree to work functions or knowledge transfer days to maintain valued relationships. 
  5. Interviews and Oral History. If you only have a few days before the retiree leaves, quickly conduct and record interviews with the retiring individual to record priority experience and insights. This can be done through audio or video recordings, allowing them to share their stories, accomplishments, challenges, and strategies in their own words. These recorded interviews can be transcribed, archived, and made accessible to others who may benefit from their wisdom.

No Plan

If you have no plan and no time, or even as I have seen, suddenly realise that you are at someone’s goodbye party and nothing has been captured, you have two options. Firstly, take the hit to the business and make the best of a bad situation. Secondly, if you have a good relationship with the retiree, ask if they would be willing to come back under some paid arrangement to carry out a knowledge transferring activity. At this stage, anything you can get from the retiree to maintain business continuity will be a bonus. Doing nothing is never a good business stratergy. 

Summary

Anyone leaving your business after a period of valued service, be that the last of the baby boomer generation or anyone else, will leave a hole in your business. 

The best practice to partially compensate for the loss of 40 years’ experience that I have seen is an organic rolling program of capturing processes and procedures visually and then having the expert go through the visual or video process before they leave so that you are able to maintain business continuity.

If the business does not have the forethought to capture their knowledge and experience the ‘hole’ they leave can be debilitating to business. Avoid this self-inflicted injury and ensure you have a comprehensive business continuity plan in place to capture retirees’ knowledge and experience. Start today.  


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Dr Anthony Kenneson-Adams

Dr. Anthony Kenneson-Adams had a 30-year career in the Royal Air Force, becoming a Senior Engineering Officer, Project Manager and Engineering Authority responsible for multiple fast jets and large-body aircraft in peace and war operations. On retiring from the Royal Air Force, he became a Corporate Operational Excellence Consultant in the Paper Manufacturing and Packaging Industries and is now the Head of Learning and Knowledge Transfer for the international Project 7 Consultancy.  You can contact Anthony at www.project7consultancy.com or [email protected]

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