By April Hirsch / Published September 2020
Can there be anything except positive outcomes for a business that cross trains? Perhaps, but ignore the negatives for now and consider the advantages and benefits.
Although many of us would like to forget the events that began early this year, we cannot. For businesses that were not ordered to close but that were instructed to send home a certain number of on-site employees, the biggest benefit of cross training immediately came into focus: stability.
The better equipped all employees remaining on site were to carry on all functions of the business, including accessing and relaying tools required by those not on site, the higher the probability the business could continue to function. In ordinary times, cross training provides stability by ensuring that a sudden exit by one or more employees does not disrupt function.
And in extraordinary times, cross training does the same. Henceforth, though, we will skip the ‘extra’ and just focus on ordinary.
“Yes, we cross train at our company,” says Brian Carter, president of Armstrong-Clark Company in Sonora, CA. “Owning a business is not always about offense and growing the business; it is every bit defense and protecting what you have built.”
There is not an assured status quo. “You have to assume any employee can have something tragic happen at any time that takes that employee away from the job, at least for some time,” says Carter. “If you are not prepared to lose an employee, you are running the risk of struggling to run your business and keep customers happy.”
A business owner welcomes the assurance that there is a buffer against the unexpected absence of an employee. Customers surely welcome the protection, too.
The employee may also benefit. It’s easier to take on new responsibilities if cross trained.
Carter explains, “You don’t have to worry nearly as much about not being able to complete a job on schedule when you lose an employee. Cross training also gives employees a sense of personal growth within the company. Lastly, cross training can break up some of the monotony of the
‘routine’ of business.”
It would seem that having employees who are willing to learn is a prerequisite for cross training. It is actually more than that.
“If you don’t have employees willing to learn, you have the wrong employees,” says Carter. “If you have employees who are not willing to teach, you have the wrong employees.”
The entire process of teaching and learning invigorates the workplace. The strength each person on the roster brings to the team can often be a vital ingredient.
“Having dedicated employees is the key for any business to succeed,” says Carter. “You also have to keep up with it. You need to keep a rotation from time to time so that what is learned is not forgotten.”
Ensuring that cross training runs smoothly is the responsibility of the owner. And it begins early at the hiring stage. The employer must be candid about the requirement that any new hire will cross train.
“The best thing to do is to be open about this up front during the interview,” says Carter. “This way all your employees have a clear expectation of how the business runs and what is expected of them.”
In effect, cross training is one dimension of ongoing learning. Every time each of us learns something new outside our routine domain—or in it—we are doing a form of cross training.
“I am a one-man operation,” says Michael Schramski, owner of American Powerwash Equipment and Supplies LLC in Albuquerque, NM. “I cross train myself by attending schools when I can and reading articles in Cleaner Times. If I have questions on something I read, I contact my supplier, who is always happy to answer my questions.”
For a one-person operation, the cross-training components in sales, service, marketing, and financials are obvious. A fifth facet, though, is equipment. Machines from different manufacturers may be similar in many ways but not all. Getting to know the intricacies of equipment and ancillaries from different makers is certainly a form of cross training.
Schramski explains that “learning about other manufacturers’ equipment,” particularly “how and why they build the way they do,” is something important to him. And he values the knowledge he acquires by investing the time to cross train.
Indeed, Schramski says he possesses the essential element for cross training to succeed: “My wanting to learn,” he explains.
Stability may be the biggest benefit of cross training, but there are many plusses.
Employees given the opportunity to keep learning will become more valuable in terms of the expertise they bring to their jobs. They will also have a stronger sense of their abilities and may be more gratified by the work they do, a plus that can translate into better retention.
Cross training also gives each employee a greater perspective on the scope of the business, the role that each person plays, and how the players fit together. The adage about not judging until walking in the other person’s shoes also applies.
For instance, a service center technician who aims to learn about online or phone chatting with customers making inquiries or complaints may get a surprising introduction to what seems like a straightforward job. (Surprises come in the case of any kind of role exchanging that takes place.)
The better employees understand what their team members do each day, the more mutual respect develops. Each employee more fully appreciates what a team effort means.
A bit more amorphous is the catalyst that cross training can be for new ideas. A sales representative who spends time in the service center may have a suggestion for an improvement there and the reverse may be true.
There is no single format for cross training. At a small business, experienced staff and company leaders can work one on one with trainees. In a larger company, the focus may be on one department and then another.
Relatively quiet periods of the year are a good time to tackle cross training. The goal is to make sure the investment of time adds to the business. If team members are too busy to work with a colleague as a trainer, the effort may be wasted.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) offers a summary of “Low and No Cost Training Options” at www.opm.gov/wiki/training/Low-Cost-Training-Options.ashx. The OPM primer is filled with good suggestions, such as using webinars or podcasts to get the message out.
A service center employee might record an-hour-on-a-busy-day and then intersperse comments about how to handle both compression of work and completion of service requests. A podcast might be made by someone working in the administrative office to illustrate the many tasks undertaken each day.
Webinars and podcasts simplify efforts to cross train because they can be retrieved and viewed by employees when the employees have time. Both can be coupled with in-person shadowing or training.
Cross training can also be approached in less formal ways. Just as OSHA safety topics may be covered at short, regular meetings, one can also cover topics such as what it is that the finance officer does.
A good prelude to a full-scale program in cross training is an exercise in what-do-I-wish-everyone-knew-about-what-I-do, an exercise that could begin with each employee writing down the five essential components of his or her job. Each of the lists could be used as the focus of one of the short, informal meetings.
Professional educators often say they learn a topic better each time they teach it. Maybe.
Yet assume each member of the team knows his or her job responsibilities and carries them out in an excellent way. By serving as a “coach” during cross training, the team member accomplishes a subtle self-check. Trainers realize they can do some things better.
When we see the complete picture, we have no need to make assumptions. The fuller a picture each employee has of his or her workplace, the less likely there are to be misconceptions. The work of others is appreciated. In a difficult situation, employees know where they can step in to help others. That is a great advantage.
Now, about those negatives. Cross training should not interfere with the flow of work. If someone from the administrative section is shadowing a service center technician and it is slowing down work, that’s a problem, especially if a contractor is waiting for a repair.
Common sense dictates service takes priority over training, and that is true in any department.
It’s the 21st century, and too many initiatives get misconstrued. Be certain a cross-training effort is not misinterpreted. An owner must thoroughly explain the rationale for cross training to employees. Otherwise, some may think a job is in jeopardy.
Another negative scenario is the potential that an employee does not want to cross train because the employee perceives it will mean additional work. The employee does not want the work.
If ongoing learning is cited as an expectation during the interview process, the negatives are much less likely to happen.