Quality Magazine

Key to Quality: Lost Tribal Wisdom

January 30, 2009
Today’s visual NDT inspectors are feeling the impact of lost tribal wisdom.

When did Generation X lose its mentors and trainers?

A significant change brought on by the globalization of modern business is the emergence of a new breed of NDT inspector-the inspector of the 21st century. In manufacturing, there are two groups of inspectors: the 45-plus age group, and the 20s and 30s age group. While the 45-plus age group is primarily comprised of technically trained inspectors with a tradesman background, brought up in the industry from trainee through journeyman into leadsman and manager, many of the inspectors in their 20s and 30s, also known as the “new inspectors,” are a knowledge-based employee, possessing a college education and a degree in management.

Despite their diversity, neither group can be successful without a clear understanding of configuration management. Due to fundamental differences in their educational background and skill-level, each has a different approach to quality inspection, yet the new inspectors stand to learn significantly from the 45-plus age group.

Today’s visual NDT inspectors are more prone to make mistakes, due to lost tribal wisdom. Look around and you will find that contract battles sound more like: “You did not tell me how to do it, so why are you telling me it is wrong?” This tribal wisdom is diminishing because companies want the latest and greatest in technology, software and hardware. Companies are so engrossed in the new-newer-newest syndrome, that workers are losing the knowledge and wisdom base that can only be captured by people. The tribal wisdom possessed by a visual NDT inspector is the first requirement for understanding the basics of a design.

Perhaps the best course of action would be to form an “adopt-an-inspector foundation,” and an excellent place to start would be the education of Generation X in the use of the principles of configuration management.

The sole purpose of configuration management is to ensure that a product maintains the same design, materials, composition or processing as was originally intended, from delivery through its entire lifecycle. If modifications are needed to meet evolving technology requirements, or are necessary to the application of the product or service, the configuration manager must ensure that the changes are integrated with existing systems and updated on the original drawings and technical documents. This also relates to assigning liability to the user, manufacturer, designer or concept visionary in the case of disaster or mishap.

The inspector of the 21st century is the configuration manager. Regardless of the stage of the operation, configuration management should be the first order of business on the road to success.

My vision for the adopt-an-inspector foundation is an organization that would act in service to the next generation of inspectors, training these individuals in the use of configuration management, and passing along valuable tribal wisdom. The assumption that companies are training their own inspectors of the 21st century and passing along the principles of configuration management is not true in every case, and it is important to the success of the global manufacturing industry that new inspectors are provided with a thorough background in new and old techniques, as well as a diverse knowledge and wisdom base, so that they can properly fulfill their duties as configuration managers.