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Cross-Training: Creating and Implementing a Successful Plan

Training employees — including managers — to take on functions other than their own will help a company achieve operational readiness, while promoting teamwork among individuals and across departments.

Q1 / Winter 2013
Savvy management would not think of putting employees on the Frontline without proper training, yet it often fails to go the next step and cross-train employees. The temporary loss of an employee due to sickness, family emergency, vacation leave, departure or other reasons leaves the company susceptible to decreased productivity, lost revenue, a lower bottom line, and strained customer relations.

“A lot of companies are under extreme cost pressures in today’s economic environment and cut corners, but cross-training is essential to your operation. You cannot avoid engaging in cross-training without leaving your company vulnerable to events beyond your control,” says Jerry Osteryoung, professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance, Emeritus, for the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

According to Osteryoung, cross-training is the systematic process to train workers to perform their work associates’ jobs. In order to be effective, it must be done both vertically and horizontally throughout the organization. Managers need to cross-train into jobs of other managers, as well as into lower-level jobs.

“Cross-training does not happen by itself. I recommend a yearly master plan which spells out who is going to be cross-trained in what jobs and when, plus establishes benchmarks for tracking adherence to the plan,” stresses Osteryoung.

“Cross-training helps the organization seamlessly fill the breach when an employee is not available to perform his or her job. It provides operational readiness that cannot be achieved with a temp employee. A ‘hot back-up’ is guaranteed with an effective cross-training program,” states Dan Carrison, a partner with Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California.

The Benefits of Cross-Training
“Benefits of cross-training include corporate readiness when there is a need to fill the shoes of an employee; providing more variety in employees’ work, which typically results in happier and more productive workers; and the interaction of employees, which builds a sense of teamwork within and between departments as each employee becomes more aware of what other employees and departments do,” points out Osteryoung.

“There is a reduction in ’fiefdoms’ and department rivalry as cross-trained employees start to see the bigger picture. They have more empathy for other employees as they better understand what it takes to perform the other person’s tasks and how their contribution contributes to the overall function of the company,” adds Carrison.

“At times there will be unbalanced work flows in your organization. With cross-trained employees, you can easily move employees from one department to another department to take care of these fluctuations without missing a beat. It gives the company staffing flexibility to handle peak workloads,” Osteryoung explains.

“Cross-training is not a one-way street. As well as the company deriving benefits, the employees also benefit. They become more valuable to the corporation by learning more skills leading to job enrichment; they feel more valued because the ‘bosses’ are investing scarce time and resources in them, and they become promotion candidates for higher-level positions,“ states Michael Campbell, director of North Florida Outreach for the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship at Florida State University. “In addition, employees with ‘new eyes’ often see solutions to work problems and can gain recognition and rewards for their contributions to a better work flow. Cross-training works as a great morale booster and a unique developer of leadership skills.”

Creating and Implementing a Successful Plan

Of course, a cross-training program must be implemented properly in order to yield successful results. Campbell, Carrison, and Osteryoung contributed to the following guidelines for creating a successful cross-training program master plan:

  • Identify the specific critical tasks for which cross-training is needed.

  • Identify the proper people who will be capable of performing the cross-training tasks. For example, a mailroom clerk would not be capable of learning and performing facilities maintenance duties, while a factory mechanic could easily pick up those duties. Match the skill set and learning capability of the people to be cross-trained with the skills required for a particular position.

  • Explain the reason for cross-training and the benefits to the employees to remove any question of both the person being trained and the person whose job is being cross-trained. Remove any suspicions that the program is designed to eliminate jobs or a particular person.

  • Schedule adequate funds, time, training materials, and training facilities in order to accomplish the cross-training.

  • Reduce the workload during the training process since it will take the new person longer to perform the task until proficiency is achieved. You don’t want employees feeling resentful that they are being required to do more work and that management is taking advantage of them.

  • Create a recognition and reward program for employees who have satisfactorily finished cross-training.

  • Show the employees that cross-training represents an integral part of their overall development plan.

  • Finally, realize that employees don’t retain the cross-training skills forever and must be re-trained periodically.

“Cross-training not only helps the organization fill work positions on a stop-gap basis, it also represents an excellent way to cultivate leadership within your organization. It will help you recognize those employees who are key to your organization and those that are ready to take on added responsibility,” emphasizes Carrison.

“In addition to keeping your business running smoothly, cross-training also delivers two other key benefits. First of all, morale is big in this economy and employees who believe that management is concerned with their enrichment will work harder; second, cross-training helps insure that customers will receive their product or service on time and on budget without any glitches. One lost customer can cost more than the entire cross-training program,” Campbell explains.

“A well-thought-out cross-training program represents a proactive plan to keep your business humming despite the temporary loss of key employees. It also erases differences and unhealthy competition between departments. Don’t let shortsighted cost controls hurt your organization in the long run. Institute a cross-training program to keep your business on the right track. Keep customers happy, enhance employees’ work experiences, and protect your bottom line,” sums up Osteryoung.

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