Cross-Training is an important management tool for both individual and team development. If you’ve ever worked at an understaffed business, you’re probably familiar with having to cover other coworkers’ responsibilities when they are absent or overloaded—but there’s a better way!
Cross-training as a business methodology has evolved far past the point where it was the equivalent of training all associates how to use the cash register when not restocking, for example. Developing employee skills in overlapping areas is best practice for ensuring interdepartmental flow.
Carefully planned cross-training scheduling standardizes flexibility within the workplace AND implements it in ways that help the overall bottom line and individual employee satisfaction. By using a few key tools and techniques, you can develop a highly adaptable, multiskilled workforce eager for any new challenge.
This definition will take a look at the concept, including the benefits and disadvantages of cross-training as a principle, and then explore some practical tools from checklists to matrices.
Develops employee skills in alternate departments for overall team flexibility
Tools include cross-training checklists and matrix templates
A Training Needs Analysis (TNA) can identify skills gaps
What is Cross-Training
Business Methodologies That Use Cross-Training
Cross-training employees is a pretty universally-applied technique in the larger business world, but it is especially foundational to the following business and management methodologies:
Cellular Manufacturing — a Lean Manufacturing subset that prioritizes quick production with as little waste as possible by grouping production cells or stations
Job Rotation — the systematic movement of employees among departments to avoid burnout and redundancy from day to day
Agile Manufacturing — a Lean methodology that focuses on fast customer response time within the production cycle
Just-in-Time Manufacturing — a production model that employs pull cycles rather than push cycles in order to meet demand with little waste
Of course, while cross-training can be implemented alongside any other management system, these four methodologies have multiskilling at the foundational level, as they build upon a lean and efficient organizational approach around production cycle time.
Benefits of Cross-Training in the Workplace
There are so many benefits of cross-training employees that business leaders are continually finding new perks once developing employee capabilities and skills. Here are the most common benefits that come from cross-training in the workplace:
Lower costs — by instilling your preferred skill sets into your current workforce and then promoting from within, you can save money otherwise spent on onboarding new hires
Adaptability — a team with well-designed cross-training can adapt to changes in schedule or production more quickly because the required work falls under more than one person’s preview
Improve morale — by recognizing the value in abstract problem-solving and uncommon solutions, you strengthen your team’s confidence in itself
Smoother workflow — by focusing on the team’s success through individual attention, others will see the increase in communication and collaboration and do the same
Targeted opportunities — identifying employees to promote for future managerial projects becomes easier because cross-training is a test run of their capabilities
Stronger collaboration — your entire team’s interactions are strengthened because of a necessary increase in interdepartmental awareness as new skills are learned
Breeds motivation — workers experience extended motivation between tasks because they can take breaks in-between activities
Better direct feedback — a network of cross-skilled employees leads to more distributed, straightforward feedback about different types of tasks
Decreased absenteeism — many businesses have reported that absenteeism decreases with cross-skilling plans, presumably since workers are more integrated with their work and driven to succeed
Scalable standardization — with more than one person assigned to a skilled task, there is less chance of variability with a standardized SOP and it is likely a mistake will be quickly fixed
Flexibility — if a team member is sick or suddenly absent, others can rearrange tasks and rotate responsibilities to seamlessly cover the gap
Disadvantages of Cross-Training in the Workplace
Overall, cross-training is a vastly successful and common practice. However, there are definitely some disadvantages to be aware of. Most of these disadvantages are swiftly resolved if the executives who are introducing the cross-training have done the necessary research and pre-planning.
Employee burnout — be careful not to overload employees excited about cross-training with too much additional work aside from their other duties, as this could lead to stress and burnout, which is neither beneficial for the employee nor the employer who would have to hire a replacement.
Too many generalists — this is akin to the problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen,” and this kitchen only has chefs—no sous chefs or prep cooks! In other words, you can’t train everyone to do everything, so when developing cross-functional skills, overlap responsibilities strategically. A team only works well when responsibilities are divided AND shared, instead of dropped for the first volunteer with an idea.
Mismatched compensation for added work — at the very least, cross-training will add more work onto employees, so you must compensate your trainees appropriately. Whether that compensation is a pay raise or a title change or even a promotion in seniority, it will ensure that your employees don’t feel cheated for their extra efforts.
Confusion around responsibilities — create a consistent system of passing off tasks as official responsibilities once trainees have completed their training, so that there is a clear division of workload and tasks don’t fall through the cracks.
How to Implement a Cross-Training Plan
Creating a cross-training regimen is straightforward, but it does involve a hefty amount of brainstorming. The principles behind a multiskilling management strategy are fairly easy to comprehend, but there are so many factors to keep in mind that without a proper visual planning checklist, you are bound to forget at least one or two.
Fear not — the resources below will help you get organized.
Pitfalls to Avoid When Cross-Training
At every major stage of the training process, return to this list of potential pitfalls to remind yourself of your goals and areas for improvement:
Know your team individually — before implementing cross-training programs, you have to know your team members individually, including how they work best and which areas of niche knowledge they may hold. Some team members may excel at cumulative multitasking whereas others may learn best by powering through a couple training sessions
Uphold standardization — ensure you’re not just passing around tribal knowledge, you’re standardizing it for future projects through SOPs
Decrease workloads strategically — while training, workers will need a decrease in their routine tasks so they can concentrate on learning
Communicate growth — clearly communicate that cross-training is NOT the first step of mass layoffs or downsizing
Recognize and reward value — recognize the added investment of new skills in top-performing employees by giving promotions or higher compensation
Consider career trajectories — consider development of your employees over a long-term time period. It wouldn’t make sense to cross-train a budding analyst in HR when they could be cross-trained in something more aligned with their career goals, like data architecture or structural coding
Be specific — outline a specific learning schedule for all team members and keep track of progress to make sure no one feels lost
These bullet points are different from the checklist below because they aren’t ever really “checked off”, they are continuous improvement considerations as your cross-skilling plan develops over time.
TOOLS IN PRACTICE: Cross-Training Planning Checklist
Okay, so now that you’ve finalized the goals of your cross-training plan, you need to keep an eye on all the details (and there are many to monitor!). Use this cross-training checklist to ensure you have done due diligence to the project’s guidelines, and check off each step as you complete it.
WHO is eligible?
What are the conditions of eligibility?
If eligible, will training be voluntary or mandatory?
What is the administrational process of opting in and out of training?
WHAT type of training will employees receive?
Courses, certifications, or tribal knowledge?
WHEN will training begin and end?
Identify workers’ mid-term and long-term goals
Create weekly and monthly schedules for fast-track training
WHERE can you identify skills gaps?
Complete a TNA (training needs analysis)
Capitalize on ideas & volunteers
HOW will employees learn their training?
Will you provide online courses or in-house training?
Are you creating your own training materials, or outsourcing?
Is it administered internally (during office hours) or externally (paid weekends/overtime)?
A Training Needs Analysis (TNA) is a helpful tool for tracking the life cycle of a new training process in development. These analyses can vary greatly depending on the areas of focus, but tend to divide the work into four distinct steps.
Identify business plan — what you are trying to do and how
Identify performance goals — how you will measure success versus failure
Identify skills gaps — look at the skill sets you have to work with
Establish new standardized solution — implement cohesive process with checks & balances to ensure new controlled SOPs
These four steps can be further explored according to one’s unique business needs, so feel free to make it as detailed or sparse as you prefer, as long as the steps to success are broken down into the above four categories.
TOOLS IN PRACTICE: Cross-Training Matrix Template
The best way to keep on top of your cross-training implementation is to track the results on a cross-training matrix. The template below is an example of one of these matrices.
You can create your own template using a grid like the one below, where the y axis column lists all of your employees, and the columns along the x axis refer to different skill sets needed in the workplace. As individuals grow in their skills and receive further training, their progress is marked in the chart for instant visual recognition of the intended goal.
Let’s walk through this example cross-training matrix together:
At first glance, it looks like Janet, having done excellent with her recent reports, is being trained to help lead a special project and to help with coding when it gets too overwhelming for Hank to do alone.
Hank is deft at writing scripts and completing payroll, so he’s been given some direction about gathering info for reporting.
Glen does payroll but he’s wanting to branch out, so he’s being trained for another special budgeting project in the accounting department.
Finally, Mary has done lots of reporting, and in-between quarterly cycles, she has been helping out with back-end scripts and has just started to receive training for payroll.
Of course, templates are usually larger and more complex than this one, and you may need several different templates, some for tracking progress and others for scheduling meetings or training sessions, for example.
Don’t forget to keep it simple. The whole purpose of the matrix is a visual-at-a-glance. If you need to stuff more information into a matrix, then evaluate which constraints you need to measure and consider using several templates for respective tasks.