Build Your Business:

Why Cross Training Is Critical for Your Shop

January 7, 2013

One thing smaller shops handle better than larger ones is the idea of cross training.  For smaller shops, one or two people could perform every single task in the company. After all, who else is going to do the work? As companies increase in size, however, it’s natural that the work becomes specialized for each employee. This is fine, but there is an inherent danger in pigeonholing employees into tasks and not letting them grow.

Building a healthy cross-training program allows your company to develop the “bench strength” needed to handle difficult challenges ahead. A good cross-training program enables employees to be trained in other job functions, which they may have to step in and perform from time to time.

One obvious benefit to this is that you could uncover talent and passion for another skill that the employee may not originally be hired to perform. Also, it is human nature to be needed and challenged, and a cross-training program feeds directly into that desire.

One thing is certain: You can’t confine talent. Failing to recognize someone’s skill sets and the human need to contribute can drive your employees to seek employment elsewhere. A robust cross-training program helps identify skills, motivate your staff and could be the core of your job-retention efforts.

To reap the benefits of cross training, correctly implementing such a program is important. A poorly managed program could possibly result in costly errors, angry customers and unfulfilled employees. It pays to think about how the program could affect your company before implementation.  Like the old carpentry adage says, “Measure twice, cut once”.

So let’s discuss how to correctly roll out the program.  

The Skills Match-Up
First, think about the tasks performed in your shop and designate the ones that could be successfully performed by other people. Afterward, think about your staff members and their current responsibilities. What new skills would they be suited for, or what would augment their primary jobs?

For example, it’s natural that a screen printing catcher or an embroidery trimmer would be trained to operate the machine. The real gem, however, is to challenge someone to try a new area in the shop that isn’t readily apparent. Think about finding someone who is naturally organized and detail-oriented, and teaching that person shipping or inventory-control duties.  

You also will need to have a good conversation with all of your employees. The natural time for this is during performance reviews. Where do they see themselves a year or two from now? What area of the company interests them? What skills do they possess — ones you don’t know about — that could help the company? The important thing is that you uncover their desires, interests and dreams. Nobody starts out knowing everything; you have to earn the skill and be given the opportunity to learn. That’s essentially what the cross-training program is all about.

Also, it may be counterproductive to force someone to participate in the training. If an employee is happy in his current role with your company, you will have to decide how to deal with that situation if or when it occurs.

The best, tried-and-true method for training is to use a mentor to develop basic skills. If it can work for the Jedi in Star Wars, it can work for you. Shadowing a veteran employee when performing tasks, and having that person demonstrate the tricks of the trade to your staff, can be the first step in building core skills and is good for both employees. This won’t be accomplished in an hour. Budget the learning time over a period of weeks so that the learner can fully grasp the work involved and get the experience by performing the task until it’s second nature.

In our company, we have the learner re-deployed after lunch for the rest of the day at the new position over a series of weeks. “Getting your hands dirty” in the new task is the best way to learn. A good place to start is to cross train members of the same work team. It’s a natural learning process for department members to pick up skills from each other — and that’s something you should encourage.

A word of warning: Some mistakes will be made. That’s OK — and you must remember to talk to trainees and let them know this is the cast — as long as they are learning during the process. I know this seems contradictory to good business, as the mistakes could possibly cost money, but it’s important that the learner understand that you are committed to the skill being learned. Veteran staff members should be present to overlook the new tasks performed, which should mitigate the frequency and cost of any mistakes. Be sure to review errors with your team so they can become learning opportunities. Fully explore and discuss the situation, and be sure to point out prevention techniques.

There is an important caveat to cross training. Coaching is a skill like everything else — and some people will be better at it than others. For those who are assigned to perform the training, they need to understand and use appropriate coaching techniques and behaviors during the process. Communication, empathy, compassion and — above all, patience — are great places to start for a trainer. Make sure your teachers are helping, rather than hurting, the process.

Remember to reduce the workload during training and while tasks are being performed. Otherwise, your staff may feel resentful about the training process.

Also, remember that the new job may not be ultimately suitable for the trainee. Let’s face it: Some people want to do more, but they just may not be cut out for the role. Maybe the job is just too technical or they don’t have the eye for the skill. Regardless, before training starts, the trainee should know he will not lose his job if he is terrible with the new task.

When is it appropriate to do the training? The obvious answer is before it’s needed. You can’t dump someone into a new position and expect that person to excel without allowing him some time in the new role. The old adage, “Chance favors the prepared” holds true with training. Drag out your calendar when building your program. Check vacation schedules or examine when those big jobs come in annually. What key task needs will you have and when? Pull back a few weeks and find two or three new people for those tasks, then develop the training regime to help with the upcoming challenge.

During the cross training your employees, it’s important that you recognize their efforts and continuously follow up with them on how they are doing. Actively listen to their concerns. Are they understanding the material and fully comprehending the work? Be sure to get the trainers’ points of view as well. Congratulate your team members’ efforts, including the mentors. Smiles, and pats on the back work great.  Handing out certificates of achievement, new job titles, advancement into new positions — and sometimes more money — will work even better.

In the end, if you envelope your shop with an active and functional continuous cross-training program, you will run a more engaged and better shop, which will be fully loaded with competent and skilled employees that are ready to face any challenge.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt.