The Benefits of Cross-Training
Monday evening, a time-sensitive proof comes across your desk that needs to be printed and ready to deliver by Wednesday. Sure, you’ve worked on a tight deadline many times before. But wait, your principal digital color operator is on vacation tomorrow! What to do? Panic starts to set in as you mull over worst-case scenarios. “How am I going to get this job done on time?” you ask.
This happened recently to Bill Althoff, production manager at Messiah College Press and Postal Services in Mechanicsburg, Pa. The theater department approved a job for 700 or so show programs, which were needed for a performance that Thursday evening. The in-plant’s staff of 13 was used to deadlines such as these, with last-minute changes to the cast being a regular occurrence. But when you’re a man down, things have the potential to go south quickly.
Luckily for Althoff and the theater department, the in-plant had cross-trained its employees, and a backup digital color operator was on hand to fill in. The programs for the school’s performance of “Infidel” were printed, bound and ready for curtain call with time to spare.
“If I would have waited until Wednesday to start the job, that wouldn’t have given my bindery operator very much time to get that job done,” says Althoff, whose shop has a $1.2 million annual operating budget. “It was nice to be able to go ahead and run that job without any problems. We were able to still get it done and have it through the bindery by end of day Tuesday and delivered by Wednesday evening in time for Thursday’s performance.”
Cross-training your in-plant’s staff can diminish potential dips in productivity when employees are absent. When these inevitable staff outages occur, the remaining employees can easily shift gears and cover if they are already familiar with the equipment. Don’t wait until you’re between a rock and a hard place to implement cross-training; take it from a few in-plant managers who have embraced the philosophy and found great success by helping their workforce become indispensable.
Making Up for Employee Shortages
Cross-training is a problem solver — not only because it keeps production going strong, but it also helps in scheduling and readying for employee shortages due to vacations, sick days, regular turnover and retiring staff members.
Althoff embarked on cross-training his staff about three years ago. “I moved into the production manager position at the College Press, and at that time, I kind of realized that we certainly didn’t have operators cross-trained, and when someone took vacation, we were left with an opening where we couldn’t keep up with work. We also have four of our 12 employees who are at retirement age, which creates a big push for us to cross-train.”
Mike Schrader, Printing and Mailing Solutions manager at Mercury Marine, in Fond du Lac, Wis., a builder of marine propulsion systems, echoes Althoff’s sentiment about needing cross-trained employees due to planned and unplanned employee absences.
“We started to cross-train in the early 2000s,” says Schrader, whose in-plant has an annual operating budget of $1.2 million. “We were trimming staff when I took over as manager in 1999. We had twice the staff we have today, which now consists of 10 employees. That pushed us into this direction because you basically have to do more with less. Vacation or sick time is really a big part. We have to make sure we can continue to satisfy our customers by getting everything done.”
An employee shortage was also the impetus for cross-training at University of Regina Printing Services in Saskatchewan, Canada, which has an annual operating budget of $1.3 million. About five years ago, two in-plant employees retired and only one was replaced, says Manager Judy Peace. A bindery/shipping/receiving position was not filled, so the two digital press operators had to take on those duties.
“I had them both trained so that whoever is available can do the work,” Peace says. “We have a Kodak NexPress that has a certified operator, but we’ve trained another staff member who had digital press experience so that we can still operate when the certified operator is away on vacation or sick leave. We also have three people trained for running the black-and-white device, as well as another color device so we’re covered if someone is sick, on vacation or just too busy on their own device.”
A Morale Booster
Cross-training isn’t just good for maintaining productivity, it can also boost employee morale and self worth. It’s comforting to know that when you leave on vacation or are sick, that you’re not going to come back to a backlog of work and have to play catch-up. Everyone can pitch in and keep the workflow moving.
“I think most of the employees like knowing that they have other skills and can run other equipment,” Althoff notes. “For the most part, it’s been good for morale. It’s good to know that you can take time off work and not have to worry about whether … things are going to get done or not.”
As with implementing any new processes or change, there are bound to be challenges. With cross-training, the biggest uphill battle is finding the time to train.
“Everyone’s busy and yet you’re asking them to learn something else,” points out Schrader. This has led many in-plants to train on an informal basis. You cannot push a regimented training strategy with deadlines and busy times.
“We’re a small shop of seven, and it’s difficult to find time to step away from your own job to learn how to do someone else’s,” says Peace. “It seems we talk about it, and try to make a plan, but then it just gets too busy.”
Don’t Forget What You Learned
Finding the time to train is one thing, but staying fresh with those new skills can be a problem in itself. Once you’re away from the equipment for a while, you can forget what you learned. So, it’s important to have employees run the equipment occasionally, especially right after they’ve been trained.
“I think it’s important that once someone is cross-trained, they get the opportunity to do the job, or run the other piece of equipment on a fairly regular basis, even if the other operator is not away,” says Peace.
Paul Wannigman, Print Services manager for retailer Coborn’s Inc., has a very informal approach to training his staff of three. The shop, which has an annual operating budget of just under $1 million, always tries to work with live jobs, not hypotheticals, as those don’t “click” in a person’s mind.
“If you’re not actually doing it, you don’t learn,” he says.
Once you have found the time to train, the best way to go about this task is to show, don’t tell. Hands-on experience is an immersive teaching technique that will equip your staff better than any training booklet.
Hands-on Experience is Crucial
At Messiah College, Althoff currently has a bindery operator who is learning the digital color machine. The operator has been observing the primary digital color operator for a few hours, watching everything the operator does.
“Now, my goal is getting him back over there within a week or so and have him actually do it hands-on so that he can try. I don’t think people learn best just by watching; I think they really need to do it,” Althoff notes. “It’s really good to have the more experienced operator standing there looking over his shoulder and saying ‘O.K., now here’s what I would do,’ but allowing the person who is being cross-trained to actually do it, hands-on. I feel it’s very important to make sure that the person retains that knowledge.
“I, myself, I’m very much a hands-on learner; I mean, if somebody shows me something I may grasp 30% of it, but if I can actually do it, I think my retention rate is much higher, and that applies to most of the equipment in our shop.”
Learning by Doing
Most of the time when Althoff cross-trains, the main operator is there watching and making sure things are going well, but it should be the person learning who is doing the work and asking the questions.
“It is better to do it that way than to wait until the main operator is on vacation and say ‘Oh, by the way, Tom, I need you to go do this today,’ and then he has questions and there’s nobody there to help him. It is good to have that time whenever the senior operator can be there.”
Once someone is cross-trained, don’t let too much time pass between learning and doing so they don’t lose the valuable knowledge they have gained.
Wannigman says when he trains people, he doesn’t even notice he’s training them since it comes second nature to him; he was a trainer and teacher in previous jobs, he explains.
“I’m a believer in wanting to know how to do everything,” he says. “So, once I know how, no matter how complex the job is, if I can do it, well then I’m going to train everybody else so they can do it.”
He cautions others not to over-train employees, which can overwhelm them and make everything seem like a blur to them.
“If you get trained too fast, you have no idea what to do. Then you’ll have to learn by yourself, and that’s very difficult,” Wannigman says. “I don’t want to throw too much at my employees. I want to make sure the steps that I do get through to them. I follow a step-by-step process that’ll keep them on the same track. It seems to work out very well; I get very few questions afterwards.”
The root of cross-training is empowerment. If you empower your staff with knowledge through cross-training, it will help all around. Employees can take time off without coming back to a never-ending pile of backlogged work, and projects will still get done on time. This keeps business flowing and employees happy. And, who wouldn’t want that?