Are Employees Mystified By What Co-Workers Do? Cross-Training Can Fix That

Project manager presenting to group

Cross-training is a philosophy often pushed to the periphery. Most people working at a business—assuming they were trained properly—have a good understanding of the job they were hired to do and the myriad responsibilities associated with that job.

But how much do they know about their coworkers’ jobs? Beyond being able to recite job titles, do they have any familiarity at all with how others in the company spend their days, what their needs are, and how what each person in the business does connects to what all the other people do?

At many companies, the likely answer is no, and that’s concerning.

I’m a firm believer that one of the routes to a more efficient and productive workplace is to cross-train employees. Ultimately, you want everyone who works for you to broaden their knowledge and expand the scope of what they normally do.

Maybe some of this philosophy comes from my military training and my time as an Army Ranger. In the Rangers, everyone was cross-trained by necessity. If you are on a critical military mission and someone goes down, another Ranger needs to take over that person’s duties. Otherwise, the mission would be scrapped.

The average business day isn’t quite so harrowing, but just as in the military, cross-training at a company comes with benefits. It prevents mistakes. It improves accuracy. It saves time. It saves money.

Let me give you just one example of how cross-training produced great results at Mustang Engineering, the company I helped found. This involved engineers and purchasing agents, two different jobs with intertwining responsibilities.

The primary job of the purchasing agent was to take specifications and drawings for a piece of equipment, bid it out, and bring in bids from a variety of vendors. The engineer would then evaluate the bids.

But we wanted the purchasing agents to evolve beyond their normal duties. We wanted them to study the bid documents and ask engineers questions, so they could better understand what it was they were sending out for bids. As the purchasing agents’ knowledge grew, they became about 60 to 70 percent as good as the engineers in reviewing bid documents to make sure they were accurate and complete before they went out to vendors. Beyond that, they became informed enough to answer vendors’ questions themselves, rather than call in engineers for help, saving everyone time.

“That’s all well and good,” you might say. “But our folks are busy. We can’t possibly set aside time for cross-training.”

We were busy at Mustang, too, but made cross-training a priority because it needed to be. Here are three ways to get it done:

  • Make use of downtime. Few people are busy every minute, so we took advantage of any downtime to slip in cross-training. That way no one was just sitting around waiting for the next project. For example, if an instrument engineer’s work slowed down, then we moved him or her over to automation or some other functional area related to—but slightly different from—the person’s regular job.
  • Schedule time. I’m skeptical when people tell me they don’t have any downtime, but let’s assume that’s true. Then I recommend you set aside time specifically dedicated to cross-training. It’s that important. Figure out who you need to cross-train and find the areas of your business where cross-training will pay off the most.
  • Implement “lunch-and-learns.” Nearly everyone eats lunch or takes a break at mid-day, and that’s a great time to set up some lunch-and-learn times when someone in the company can teach others about what they do. At Mustang, we even had vendors come in and talk about their products and services.

An added bonus to cross-training is people who don’t normally interact are brought together and develop a better appreciation for what others do, helping to create an even greater sense of team throughout the organization.