The most critical step in cheesemaking is the aging process known as “affinage”. Approximately 50% of the flavors you taste in a great cheese can be attributed to this step. This company had made its reputation over decades because their affineur always managed to pick the cheese and send it to the local stores at precisely the right moment when its flavors peaked.
The company owner was concerned that his chief affineur of 50 years was about to reach his 80th birthday and needed to pass on his unique tribal knowledge to a younger protégé selected by the owner (Quel surprise, the owner’s son!)
The son shadowed the affineur to understand the cheese making art—he watched the old man shuffle through damp and aromatic aging cellars to inspect the ripening cheeses. Within these dank tombs were piling upon piles of cheeses.
He placed his finger on the top of the cheese, tapped it a couple of times and said “Non!”. The apprentice tapped the cheese and felt its texture while the old affineur tapped the next one and declared “Bon! The apprentice could discern no difference! This ritual went on for several weeks and the apprentice became completely bewildered. Finally, the owner called the affineur in to see why he was being “tres difficult”. It transpired that the affineur had no idea how he was making the determination—it happened at a completely unconscious level.
The owner called the local university who sent along one of their top physicists. His hypothesis was the old man was feeling the softness of the cheese to determine its readiness. He arranged a contraption that dropped a steel ball bearing onto the surface of the cheese and measured the depth to which it penetrated. Frustratingly there was little correlation between depth and ideal ripeness.
Next along came a bright student from the chemistry department who felt it must be related to the surface property of the crust. She took samples of the cheese and coated them with gold, placed them in an x-ray crystallography machine, bombarded the samples with radiation to examine the structure of the surface crust. Again, no correlation. “Sacre Bleu!” exclaimed the owner, concerned at the rising cost of these tests and the possible loss of their reputation for the best and ripest Camembert in all of Normandy.
The University Statistics Department Professor was up next—versed in every esoteric branch of his art, busied himself creating a sophisticated multivariable Design of Experiments methodology that he was confident would unravel the mystery.
This may have gone on for some months if it wasn’t for complete serendipity. A sommelier was visiting the factory to determine the best wine pairings (best suggestions are a Beaujolais or Red Bordeaux by the way).
She had spent time with the kindly cheesemaker on several occasions and with her olfactory prowess noted when he tapped the cheese he moved a few molecules of the surface mold. These were unconsciously inhaled for him to make his gut assessment. Voilà! Mystery solved, reputation protected.
This is an example where knowledge is so deeply ingrained it becomes part of the way things are done and it becomes unconscious competence. It is Tribal Knowledge.
At SBTI we have the pleasure of exploring many businesses, uncovering these gems and helping codify best practices so they can be systematically propagated.
There is the hidden treasure within your own business-it is the unwritten excellence held by your tribe and practiced without thought but not always systematically.
So we encourage managers and leaders to mingle with their tribe–go out on the factory floor, visit the distribution center, spend time with the salespeople. We implore you to go and smell the cheese!
The concept of tapping in to Tribal Knowledge is explored in more detail in the paper found at the following link:
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