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Cross-training: A Quarter Mile in Someone's Shoes

Cross-training (being trained in more than one role within an organization) has been a staple of the manufacturing industry for a long time. The benefits of cross-training include employee engagement, flexibility, succession planning, and appreciation for other departments. Cross-training also exists in the construction industry. In smaller companies, cross-training is a necessity as most employees wear many hats. Even at Robinson’s current size, some cross-training exists. Many of our field supervisors are skilled in a variety of trades, and nearly all our new graduate employees are exposed to several departments within the company before finding their career. Yet, for those of us who have been around for a while (but not long enough to remember the days when the office staff consisted of a handful of people), and have been in one department for a significant amount of time, cross-training is generally thought to be impractical. Yet, it may be this group that could benefit the most and have the most benefit to the company. I would venture a guess that Robinson is not alone in this mentality.

In my current role, I work solely within the “get work” function of the company. I have little direct involvement with the “do work” side; however, a few small projects came up at our facility. The project management staff was taxed with managing client projects, so I volunteered to be the project manager, or should I say, project mangler, for these small projects. Since the projects were at our facility, I also acted as superintendent. While I didn’t set the world on fire in either role, and won’t be putting in a request to HR to move departments any time soon, I did find the experience to be very rewarding. Having worked for the company for a long time, I am aware of what these individuals do at a high level, but I have definitely gained an appreciation for the small things necessary to keep a job moving and the challenges they face on a daily basis.

In a recent Forbes.com article titled Cross-Training: Your Best Defense Against Indispensable Employees, Chris Cancialosi points out several benefits to cross-training managerial level employees including:

  • Durability
  • Agility
  • Flexibility
  • Efficiency
  • Teamwork

Durability, having employees able to take over for other employees in the event of their departure, is definitely a top reason to cross-train employees in a business of any size. As a matter of sustainability, no business should ever be solely reliant on any one individual. Many CEO’s fall into this trap. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review titled Avoid the Traps that can Destroy Family Businesses, this is why approximately 70 percent of family businesses fail or are sold before the second generation takes over.

While this concept to ensure simple survival is paramount, the value of teamwork cannot be overstated. In large companies, especially companies that operate with a functional organizational structure, it can be easy to become departmentalized. This results in the needs of the department getting put over the needs of the company and the responsibilities of the other departments being underestimated. Cross-training, at least in my limited experience, fosters a deeper appreciation for other departments.

As discussed in the Forbes article, a true cross-training program for managers requires commitment. For some employees, being considered indispensable is a badge of honor and they will thus resist the program. Most employees, and likely their managers, will consider themselves too busy. Successful cross-training is not easy, but for those companies that can pull it off, the benefits include risk-mitigation for the company and happier, more team-oriented employees.

This post first appeared in our quarterly publication, Robinson Report (Volume 15, Issue 3, 2017). View the full issue here.

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