Cross-Training: Creating a Flexible Workforce for When it is Needed the Most

Posted By: John Hindman, Director of Learning Services, Tooling U-SME on June 03, 2020

Cross-Training: Creating a Flexible Workforce

Tooling U-SME has launched a series of learning and development webinars to address current pain points for manufacturers. The first was Strategic and Effective Onboarding is Critical for Surge Hiring, which focuses on how to get a new worker to qualification of a specific job assignment.

But what happens when changing demands, say a pandemic, requires a worker to obtain new skills to take on more work assignments?

Cross-training is the answer and that is the focus of our second webinar: Cross-Training: Creating a Flexible Workforce for When it is Needed the Most.

Cross-training was always viewed as a nice-to-have option or tool to groom future leaders within an organization. However, manufacturers have learned that if they don’t have a flexible workforce, there is a potential risk to their business.

The COVID-19 crisis is a pressing example; however, other natural disasters, an employee illness or departure, retirements, and more can also impact a business if the skills and knowledge needed for each task are not duplicated.

For instance, if a mechanic leaves, can someone else take over these responsibilities to ensure there is no gap in productivity? To head off the risk, a manufacturer can ensure a machine operator is also trained on basic preventive maintenance and small equipment repairs.

It is important for an organization to ask, “If people leave tomorrow, can business continue as usual?” Prepare for the unexpected now.

As we will discuss later, teaching your employees the skills and responsibilities of another position at your company is not just a benefit for the organization, it also provides employees with valuable opportunities.


Why is Cross-Training Important?

Cross-training helps to manage risk. Here are some top-line points to remember:

  • Cross-training is a mitigation technique for maintaining your productivity.
  • It offers flexibility and resiliency in the face of turnover or a disruption in the current workforce.
  • It’s not meant to train every employee on every job. Look for ideal areas of cross-training to ensure highest training return on investment.
  • Routine skills can become costly if not cross-trained.
  • Programs need to be designed and communicated correctly to avoid negative reactions.

Cross-train For Task

It’s important to cross-train for task and not just job role. Training for a job role forces movement across pay grade, which your business may not be able to support. Group success should be rewarded which shifts the model from pay-for-skills to pay-for-performance.

Cross-training benefits include:

  • Stability: ensures the business will not suffer if essential team members are not available.
  • Agility: duplicates skills sets for the business and gives individuals opportunities.
  • Flexibility: allows the business to quickly recover from disruptions to meet customer demand.
  • Efficiency: refines, improves and institutionalizes processes through ongoing training to others.
  • Teamwork: builds new relationships with people from other areas give employees a view of the big picture.

Designing a Cross-Training Program

When I’m out in the field, I hear common objections to cross-training:

  • There isn’t enough time or resources.
  • If I’m not going to get paid more, I don’t want to learn someone else’s job.
  • I’m not going to train somebody who could take my job.
  • Our current job classification system and pay structure will not support cross-training.

Yet leadership clearly sees the advantages. How you move forward depends on the type of cross-training program you develop.

Analysis is the first stage. We recommend creating a Flexforce Framework. This approach can help your company understand the tasks in your business to decide if they can be cross-trained and if they are aligned with business objectives. The skills that make up each task become the target of your cross-training program.

To develop this architecture, we work with our customers to analyze and consider the efficiencies of these three elements:

  • Skill pattern: Which skills each worker is qualified to perform.
  • Worker coordination: How workers are allocated tasks.
  • Team structure: How workers collaborate and communicate.

Cross-Training Tied to Business Objectives

Through a well-designed framework, cross-training can positively impact business objectives related to:

  • Cost: Helps support lower labor costs by increasing labor productivity. Flexibility provides greater utilization.
  • Time: Enables shorter lead-time quotes. It also creates more reliable delivery by reducing means/variance of cycle time to produce a product.
  • Quality: Helps support better internal quality by lowering yield loss and rework. For external quality, it helps reduce the frequency of output handoffs and broadens the capabilities to meet customer demand.
  • Variety: Increases the flexibility of the organization so a large set of workers effectively delivers a broader range of products/services to customers through customization and innovation.

In addition, to these direct benefits, cross-training can also support indirect benefits to the business and employees such as:

  • Learning: Enables workers to work faster, more consistently, and reliably over the long term.
  • Communication: Allows workers to coordinate a task up / down stream.
  • Problem Solving: Gives workers a more global perspective of system.
  • Motivation: Increases effort levels and cooperation.
  • Retention: Helps with job satisfaction through ties to compensation and job development.
  • Ergonomics: Helps decrease fatigue, boredom, and repetitive stress.

Importance of Communication

It is critical that employees understand the reasons for cross-training and recognize the professional development benefits for them, including potential advancement opportunities, job security, etc. If communication is mishandled, workers may interpret cross-training initiatives as a threat to their job and foster unhealthy competition between peers. To counteract this, companies should encourage a culture where employees are rewarded for group successes in addition to individual performance. Organizations should reinforce that every employee’s contribution benefits the overall mission of the company.

Of course, selecting the correct workers for cross-training is crucial for success. Does the candidate have the base knowledge needed? Have they demonstrated abilities in similar or complimentary duties? Are they already high performers? Can the person take on added responsibilities?


Training Strategy

Cross-training was traditionally approached through on-the-job training (OJT). Today, technology also offers options. For instance, workers can gain prior knowledge using eLearning courses or practice their skills in a safe environment through virtual reality.

OJT still remains the most important element, however, so companies should verify that their OJT program is formalized and structured with standard outcomes and supports passing on of tribal knowledge through a collaborative workforce culture.

Performance support ensures that workers do not forget skills if not used on a regular basis. Quick reference guides, micro videos and augmented reality tools can be pushed out to workers to refresh needed skills.

Be creative and look for blended options (take a look at our Turnkey Training) when creating a cross-training plan.

I’ll leave you with Seven Tips for Designing and Launching a Cross-Training Program:

  1. Identify the specific skills needed for cross-training critical business tasks.
  2. Make a business case to receive buy-in and support from stakeholders.
  3. Identify the proper people who will be capable of taking on cross-training skills.
  4. Communicate the reason for cross-training and the benefits to the employee.
  5. Secure adequate funds, time, training materials and facilities to conduct the cross-training.
  6. Create recognition and awards for cross-training success stories.
  7. Support ongoing competence of the newly learned skills.

Don’t let the implementation of a valuable cross-training program be daunting. It will help you keep your business on track, ensure your customers are happy, enhance your employees’ work experience and protect your bottom line.

Call us with questions!

Tags: "augmented reality", COVID-19, cross-training, "cross-training program", eLearning, manufacturing, "manufacturing training", OJT, "on-the-job training", "Tooling U-SME", "virtual reality"