Whether you have an extensive training program or you haven’t begun to set one up, you may be missing an excellent opportunity to improve performance, save money, and please customers through cross-training.
Cross-training involves teaching an employee all or parts of other people’s jobs. In other words, your sales rep may learn how to deliver services. Or your head of operations may learn how the accounting department works.
You end up with people who have deep knowledge in their primary job responsibilities but can help out or cover in other key areas when necessary. In her article for Training Industry magazine, Shina Neo writes, “A well-designed cross-training program can improve employee retention and engagement, increase productivity and reduce turnover.”
The benefits of cross-training
With a cross-trained team, you can
- Improve engagement by introducing variety and challenge into your team’s work.
- Increase retention by offering more flexible work schedules, vacation, and parental leave without impacting the business.
- Improve productivity by allowing employees to help in other departments during rush times.
- Increase innovation by letting employees step out of their routines and make connections with other parts of the business.
- Improve efficiency by helping employees understand the needs of other groups and breaking down silos.
Cross-training success stories
Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of O2E Brands, the banner company for 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and other firms, can offer employees 5 weeks of vacation a year because they use cross-training to fill in for those temporarily beach-side.
And if those folks happen to be vacationing at North Myrtle Beach, they’ll benefit from cross-training between the police and fire departments. The town, which sees a big influx of tourists during the summer, certifies police in firefighting and vice versa so they can meet seasonal needs with a smaller overall force.
As quoted in a local article, “It makes us a team,” said Training Sergeant, Aaron Best. “When we get on scene, whether they’re in police uniform or whether they’re in fire uniform and we’re in police, we know who we’re working with. With that, it makes us work better together.”
And Greg Otmaskin of QuotaFactory describes in a recent article how they use cross-training to improve customer service. QuotaFactory provides contract inside sales services, and their clients expect uninterrupted service even if a manager or rep should take time off. So the company puts two cross-trained managers on each job where they can cover for each other if needed, and regardless of vacations or illness, the client gets seamless service. Sales reps also train their replacements if they know of an upcoming absence.
How to get started with your cross-training program
Every company’s cross-training program will look a little different. Design yours with strategic goals in mind.
Decide which skills and people to cross-train.
Take a look at the job descriptions on your team. (By the way, if you don’t have job descriptions, write those first. Cross-training people will never work if you don’t know the key responsibilities of each position.)
Look for good cross-training candidates in key positions. George Henning, President of OCM Manufacturing, describes his company’s process for setting up their program in article for Electrical Engineering Times. He suggests starting with
- Complementary jobs, like testing and assembly
- Specialized areas of a larger department, such as machine set-up and machine operation
- High-value tasks that will impact the business if they aren’t completed
- Management roles
You can also start with your own job and train a few folks on your key tasks. Or people on your team might have ideas about what other capabilities they’d like to aquire.
Select training candidates who are willing to learn new things. And look for trainers who have patience, answer questions, and enjoy teaching their jobs to others. You can use professional trainers if you have them, but it’s not necessary. Peer-to-peer learning can be just as effective and will build strong relationships among your people.
Set up training goals and a schedule.
When you know who will be training whom in what, set up specific learning goals and give each a deadline. Remember that no one masters a skill in an afternoon. They need to take it step-by-step with time to absorb new information and practice new functions. You may have someone train on a job role for several weeks, taking an hour or two per week to learn and practice.
You may not know initially how to set up the learning goals, so experiment with different tasks and schedules. Ask your initial participants to provide feedback on how well it’s working so you can improve as you go.
Position your program for success.
Henning notes that good cross-training requires cooperation from the whole company.
Leadership has to support the initiative and give management the latitude to invest some time into the process.
Some employees may want to move from one department to another if they fall in love with a particular job. It’s important to have processes in place for those folks.
And if the company is going to take advantage of multi-skilled employees, you need to know who can do what. So the training has to be tracked and recorded for everyone to access.
Hiring practices should favor people with a willingness to learn.
Cross-training should be seen as part of the corporate culture, not a one-time project. Thus, people will not only learn new skills, but also stay current on them and expand their abilities over time.
What’s in the way of cross-training?
While companies who cross-train report significant benefits, most organizations still don’t do it. Some don’t want to spend the time developing a program even though you can get going much faster than with a traditional training program.
Some companies have a culture which discourages sharing between job specialties. If people see their co-workers as potential job stealers, they won’t share their knowledge. Some workers also get a sense of prestige from being the sole keeper of important information or capabilities.
Finally, management may not see the value in cross-training. If there’s no support from the top, it won’t succeed.
If you’re considering it for your company, keep these challenges in mind. You can still try cross-training on a smaller scale, perhaps within your own team or between two like-minded teams. Starting small lets you avoid problem people, experiment without much risk, and quantify some benefits for leadership.
It’ll be worth the effort when someone’s kid needs emergency orthodonture and a huge order comes in at the last minute. You’ll enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your cross-trained team can handle business as usual.
At Pract.us, we help make cross-training a snap to set up and manage. Learn more.