Tacit knowledge transfer and spillover learning in production ramp-up - results of experimental investigations

Rößler, Marc; Letmathe, Peter (Thesis advisor); Piller, Frank Thomas (Thesis advisor)

Aachen (2019, 2020)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2019


With today’s shortening product life cycles and an increasing number of product variants, manufacturing firms are performing production ramp-ups more often. Production ramp-up is defined as the time period which begins when product development is completed and ends when production reaches full capacity utilization. It has been shown to be a highly relevant phase for companies’ operational and financial success. Ramp-up phases are usually characterized by high uncertainty and instability and are therefore difficult to manage. While quick changes can be realized in the production system and with regard to the product due to technological advancements in digitalization, robotics, and automation, employees and organizational structures need to be adaptable as well. In this context, learning is crucially important to quickly achieve high production process quality and stability. High uncertainty and instability can be mitigated by transferring and providing the appropriate knowledge at the right place at the right time. To analyze the learning process during production ramp-up and new product development, different forms of knowledge transfer are investigated in this dissertation. The first concept is that of spillover learning, i.e., benefitting from a not necessarily intended transfer of knowledge. Second, a system for digitally animated, interactive work instructions is tested. Third, explicit and tacit knowledge transfer are examined. Explicit knowledge is of a universal character and can be formally encoded and documented. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is more personal and can be transferred through observation, interaction, and imitation. Three stand-alone research papers, each based on an experimental study, form the basis for the present dissertation. The dissertation consists of two parts. Part 1 serves as an introduction and provides a motivation for the topic, an overview of the research model together with the research questions to be answered, it summarizes the relevant literature as well as the main hypotheses, briefly describes the employed methodology, provides key results of the three research papers, and derives conclusions, implications, and directions for future research. Part 2 then consists of the three individual research papers. Research Paper 1 focuses on spillover learning in the production ramp-up of consecutive product generations. The study provides solid evidence of knowledge spilling over between consecutive ramp-ups. While this finding might sound trivial at first, it clarifies a discussion in the literature, where findings are weak and mixed. The controlled environment of the laboratory enabled a reliable analysis of spillovers between production ramp-ups. Second, tacit knowledge transfer was shown to take place through observation and imitation and to lead to knowledge spillovers between individuals. Working side by side with more experienced individuals leads to a higher performance of newcomers compared to a person who works on her or his own, even if this experienced person has also not performed the tasks at hand yet but only similar tasks in the past. Third, tacit knowledge transfer between equally unexperienced individuals has a positive impact on the spillover between consecutive ramp-ups with regard to the required time, but a negative impact with regard to the achieved quality. This insight is highly relevant for quality management in manufacturing. Allocating newcomers to experienced colleagues leads to better performance in terms of time and quality due to spillovers. However, allocating dyads of equally unexperienced colleagues may impede quality. This finding contradicts the prevalent view that observation always leads to tacit knowledge transfer and thus improved performance in all performance domains. This research hence entails important implications for the composition of work teams on the shop floor. Research Paper 2 deals with the use of digitally animated, interactive work instructions on the shop floor to enable fast ramp-ups in an agile manufacturing environment. It demonstrates the potential of digital technologies in agile manufacturing environments through an experiment in a factory environment. Employee performance in an assembly task, which is new to a worker, can be improved with regard to production quality and time simultaneously with the help of digitally animated, interactive work instructions. The first finding shows that subjects who were given digitally animated, interactive work instructions, as opposed to paper-based technical drawings, performed significantly better in a new assembly task with regard to production quality and time. Second, the study shows that the advantages of digitally animated, interactive work instructions are greatest if provided solely. Combining them with (existing) paper-based technical drawings does not yield additional benefits. Subjects equipped with both sets of instructions made fewer mistakes than the group with only paper-based technical drawings but did not need less processing time. More intriguingly, they did not outperform the group with only digital instructions with regard to any performance measure. In conclusion, paper-based technical drawings, which regularly exist on most shop floors, do not seem to complement digitally animated, interactive work instructions. Instead, companies should replace existing paper-based instructions with digital instructions. Lastly, Research Paper 3 investigates the influence of explicit and tacit knowledge transfer on innovativeness in new product development and how this influence is moderated by the perceived social environment. The study shows that tacit knowledge transfer can be advantageous over explicit knowledge transfer for inducing innovativeness, but only if the transfer happens in a supportive social context: If the knowledge sender is associated with innovative characteristics, tacit knowledge transfer is a powerful means to spur innovativeness in manufacturing settings. However, a social context with a low focus on innovativeness can even hinder innovativeness when relying on tacit knowledge transfer as compared to explicit knowledge transfer. The results show that - contrary to the prevailing belief - the transfer of tacit knowledge is not a universal means for innovativeness but is only beneficial if it takes place in an adequate social environment. In essence, this dissertation analyzes how different forms of knowledge transfer influence performance during production ramp-up and innovativeness in product development. In experimental studies, different work environments with regard to available forms of knowledge transfer and with regard to work instructions for workers are tested.