For continuous success, cross train your employees

The Fram Oil Filter was designed to eliminate the threat of ruining your engine by eliminating contaminants. The marketing theory rested on the benefits of changing your oil filter with every oil change. If you didn’t take that preventive step, they indicated in the commercial, “you could pay me later.”

There is a lot of truth in that message. Companies that refuse to take precautionary measures in their business practices face the same statement of truth: “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.”

An entrepreneur started a vending business in the Northeast years ago in the hopes that his son would take over the business and carry on the legacy, providing a good living for his family and a great service for his customers. As the son grew, he learned all aspects of the vending business from running a route to fixing the machines to running the warehouse.

The day John took over the business from his father was a joyous day. Not only for John, but also for his father, Jim (these are not their real names). Jim knew he had done the right thing in training his son to competently run the business, thus ensuring his retirement and his son’s future.

John made sure that every employee did their best at their job and supervised aggressively.

The route people ran the routes, the warehouse personnel ran the warehouse, the office personnel ran the office functions, and so on.

Complacency sets in

Over time, each employee became only concerned about their own job and not how each position in the company fit together to create the total experience for the customer. People were blaming other departments, morale was low, and when possible, they would leave.

When the economic downturn hit, John had a problem: how to lower costs and improve productivity. He had to lay people off, and the existing staff had to cover more work. The company decided to eliminate its less profitable stops, so it reduced a route to half a route.

Because the driver running a route was more valuable to the company than some of the other hourly staff, the company opted to let go one warehouse position and have one driver spend two days a week working in the warehouse. Because no cross training process had been created, the company took the chance that this particular driver might not perform well in this new role.

“If only my people could do more than one job, it would ease the pain,” was John’s thought. By cross training, the company can respond to changes in its staff faster and without incurring the cost associated with retraining at an inopportune time.

His solution? Exactly what his father, Jim, did with him. He realized he had to pay up front to minimize the expense later. He had to invest in the people in his company in order to survive and ultimately thrive.

Evaluating the pros and cons

John thought about some of the reasons people might not want to be cross trained.

He knew that if the program was not properly managed, it could result in loss of productivity and even dissatisfied customers.

Morale would suffer if people felt they were in jeopardy of losing their jobs. Some would resent assuming more responsibility for the same amount of money paid. Confusion would result if people lost sight of their primary responsibilities.

Specialized knowledge would suffer if people spend all of their time learning a little bit of everything.

He then looked at the benefits of cross training; he considered what it would bring to the employees.

It provides staffing flexibility for a planned vacation, emergency or after a position is vacated. When cross-trained employees step in and fulfill open job responsibilities, you don’t have to spend money on temporary staff.

Employees gain an understanding of the connections between departments and tasks to run the operation. As a result, they are better able to answer customer questions and effectively handle problems that come up.

Problems and suggestions for improvement may be identified when a different person performs a task.

Employees experience a change in routine and boredom is reduced.

Employees feel valued because the employer is investing time and resources in their development.

People for higher-level jobs may be identified during the process.

John laid out a plan. He identified tasks performed for various jobs and designated which ones could be successfully performed by other people.

He identified who has interested in his cross training program. He realized it is not wise to force someone into cross training; you may have to create the environment for employees to buy into it. They may not see the skills necessary like you do.

He identified who has the competencies to be cross trained for new positions.

He developed a training process. Supervisors could do the training or even the person currently performing the job. It is important to provide adequate training and instruction to the trainer on how to train. You cannot assume people have this expertise. You could do more damage than good by not paying attention to this.

John reduced the workload during the training and while the tasks were being performed. Otherwise, the people involved may feel resentful about the entire process.

He allowed time to learn and practice. One can’t assume a person can pick up the new process and retain it forever. Instead, you must outline a schedule to perform the new skill periodically and expect beginner mistakes at first.

John found himself needing some assistance in cross training his employees. His investigation of outside sources included the community college in his town for supervisor and management training.

The overall outcomes for John, the employees and the business were: overall costs decreased, employee morale and motivation improved, turnover decreased, people saw a better opportunity for growth in the company, there was less burden on the supervisors, there was better coordination between the departments, and there were fewer differences between the people and departments. Most importantly of all, he is still in business!