Whether you are in the service industry or the manufacturing industry, cross-training your employees can have significant benefits and seriously improve your company's flexibility and responsiveness.
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Cross-training your employees means a change in the traditional way of thinking where employees have specific individual job descriptions.
Cross-training means that employees will be trained to complete a variety of job functions. For example, in an office setting your account/receivable person would be trained in the functions of accounts/payable as well as other inter-related tasks.
There are several reasons to cross-train your employees. Most importantly, you are increasing their overall skill set, a tremendous benefit to your company.
Clearly there are additional costs required to train your employees, but overall they will have a better understanding of your operation as a whole. In addition, employees respond well when they are learning new skills. It gives them the sense that they are developing and that your company cares about them.
The more tangible benefit is the improved flexibility that your company will experience. There are times when the workload will not be balanced and require less help in one area and additional help in another. With cross-trained employees you can better meet these fluctuations in demand as well as avoid problems when an employee is out of the office.
I consulted for a company in the manufacturing industry that was hesitant to adapt a cross-training program. As a result, I had to find a tangible example to prove my point. It did not take long to find. There was only one employee (out of 30) who had the training to run a particular machine. When the employee was not in the correct spot, the entire line shut down waiting for the one trained employee to return. Had other employees been trained in this area, there would not have been a line stoppage and 29 people could have remained working.
One of the main deterrents to cross-training is how employees feel about retaining knowledge. An employee may feel their job is threatened if someone else is being trained in their function. It's important that you lay these woes to rest and explain why you are cross-training your employees.
In the example above, the one trained employee had a lot of power with his knowledge. If another employee learns his skills, he may feel less important. This is a legitimate human emotion, but it cannot stand in the way of running a successful business.
In order to meet fluctuating demand, you want a well-trained and well-versed workforce. Don't shy away from the added costs of additional training; it will only serve you well in the long run. The costs of stopping work and waiting for an individual is far greater than the training costs.
In addition, you don't want to have a lot of "tribal knowledge" within your organization. Tribal knowledge is when one or many employees know the operation rather than it being written down and be widespread.
Don't put your company in the position of having to rely on individuals to get the job done. By cross-training employees you avoid major hassles if an employee quits or is sick and has their information with them.