Kansas City nuclear facility captures expert know-how

Staff engineer Michelle Maurer says the Kansas City plant preserves its experts' knowledge with Six Sigma process maps 'as part of our culture.'

Courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration

The Kansas City, Mo., plant of the National Nuclear Security Ad-ministration has been making components for national defense systems for more than half a century. But few of its original experts are still alive, and 34 percent of workers are 50 years old or older.

Some of the employees' critical skills took five to 10 years to acquire on the job.

So, with ongoing personnel turnover, how can the Kansas City plant continue to manufacture 40 lines of delicate arming devices, microcircuits and other small parts for nuclear weapons, as well as maintain its skills in, for example, chemical vapor deposition? The answer: an active knowledge preservation program.

'We take a snapshot of a process that an expert invented or streamlined here, and we try to capture the nuances of how the work was done,' staff engineer Michelle Maurer said.

'It could be that the expert is retiring soon and we need to capture the knowledge before it's gone, or it could be that the process is very seldom done.'

Other times, she said, there might be two or three experts involved in a process, and they aren't completely sure what the others are doing.

The plant's preservation techniques include video and audio clips, cutaway graphics, documents to highlight critical steps and process maps that follow the international Six Sigma strategy for quality assurance.

'The whole plant uses Six Sigma,' Maurer said. 'It's part of our culture.' She said all the engineers are familiar with process maps, which trigger questions to ask to ensure that things will happen in the right order.

A chosen process undergoes Six Sigma's Failure Mode Effects Analysis to determine the critical steps to be documented. Sometimes animation is necessary for procedures too small to see on video. Then a former radio deejay narrates the step-by-step operations, and the finished knowledge snapshot goes onto the plant's secure intranet for self-paced consultation and learning.

So far about 25 processes are online, stored in an Oracle Corp. database with a Java front end for browsing. Anyone in the plant can view the processes, but they have proved most useful for educating new hires.

Help new hires

'While they're awaiting a security clearance, the new hires can watch and learn and step up their knowledge,' Maurer said.

She undertakes documenting about eight processes per year at the plant. 'I ask the operations managers to list and rank the processes by their urgency,' she said. 'About 80 are now on the list to do. Once a year we re-evaluate the whole list.'

The nuclear administration's Learning Technologies Group in Albuquerque, N.M., developed the procedure for assembling knowledge snapshots, and its use has spread to NNSA's plant in Amarillo, Texas. The Energy Department's Sandia Laboratories 'does it slightly differently,' Maurer said.

The Learning Technologies Group in Albuquerque has about 12 full-time workers, including media specialists, trainers, videographers and animators. At Kansas City, Maurer is on her own.

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