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Cross Training – Is It Right for Your Business?

Teaching employees to perform job functions that are not listed in their job description can pay dividends

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It is the middle of corn harvest, and things are running smoothly for your grain elevator. However, Monday morning you receive word that one of your key employees was involved in a fairly serious motocross accident over the weekend, and has a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder. One employee who will be away from work for at least 10 days to two weeks is really difficult for your organization. And … then, “when it rains it pours,” one of your longer tenured employees, who heads up your grain grading station, calls to tell you that his spouse needs surgery for an emergency appendectomy and there appear to be some complications. Now a second key employee will be out for at least two weeks to be the spouse’s caregiver. Wow —what do you do? Are enough of your other employees ready to fill in? Do they know what to do? We would suggest that a potential way to be prepared for such a scenario is to make sure that your employees are “cross-trained.”

Cross training — is it right for you and your business?

Let’s start by establishing exactly what cross training is. Cross training involves teaching employees to perform job functions that are not listed in their job description. They are trained with the skills necessary to effectively execute tasks belonging to other workers. It’s kind of like cross training in terms of physically working out; you combine different exercises to work various parts of the body. In business terms, you train employees in different job functions to better operate different parts of your organization. You might ask, why would this be necessary? Isn’t that why you hire different people to perform different job functions? In this column, we are going to explain the importance of cross training, and describe the short- and long-term advantages it could supply to your feed and grain business.

Importance of cross training

The key to successful company performance stems from your company’s workforce. Cross training enhances team performance and is designed to maximize staff efficiency and flexibility. Having a consistently efficient team improves your firm’s organizational approach, which leads to a more smoothlyrun business. Cross training teams increases employee proficiency levels in roles outside of their usual responsibilities, and provides a built-in temporary workforce. When an employee is absent, or during peak demand periods (such as at harvest), it reduces the probability of being short-handed or less proficient since one or more employees can pitch in and take responsibility for the missing employees’ workload or help cover an increased workload. A crosstrained workforce can also help to increase unity and amity in the workplace by promoting teamwork within your feed or grain business. When your employees understand and recognize the goals and demands of different departments and positions, misunderstandings are often resolved faster and more efficiently. The late management consultant, William Edwards Deming, shared his belief that without being exposed to all areas of an organization, managers and employees are incapable of fully understanding a business. He believed that only through deep immersion in many areas of a business could a worker adequately manage or understand a business. Today, high-performing organizations and effective managers apply Deming’s philosophy in training future managers and motivating employees.

Not only does business thrive with the use of cross training, but there is also increased opportunity for employee advancement. Your cross-trained workers are ideal candidates for promotions since most of the general training has already taken place and they are more familiar with your feed and grain business operations. Cross training keeps employees motivated through assignment rotation, and gives them additional skills as they learn multiple job functions. Cross-trained employees often feel that their jobs have been enriched, and are overall more satisfied in the workplace. Cross training can promote employee retention by demonstrating that your business has faith in employees’ abilities and aims to provide them with opportunities for career growth, which helps to motivate employees to go that extra mile when needed.

Cross training can be both implemented and beneficial in any position in almost any feed and grain business. If retail sales are part of your company, cross training can help ensure quality customer relationships, and give some of your “behind the scenes” employees a good feel for dealing with customers. Smaller firms can also benefit greatly from crosstraining practices; with fewer employees, it makes sense to maximize the use of their skills and talents.

Making sure your grinder-mixer employee knows how to handle your feed delivery trucks and vice-versa for your truck drivers makes good sense. Having those same employees spend time with your salesperson introduces them to dealing with customers and prospects, and also provides an opportunity to see your farm customers’ operations firsthand. Having your front office personnel spend time with your grain receiving crew, and understanding the flow of grain both physically and electronically via your grain loading and load-out systems, helps them understand the workings of those flows.

A side benefit of cross training, mentioned briefly above, is the additional understanding and bit of compassion, if you will, of seeing some of the challenges people face in doing other jobs in your business. The fitting quote here is to “never criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins” (Native American proverb).

How to implement a cross-training program

A successful cross-training program requires careful planning and organization. In order to wrap cross training into your business’s culture and philosophy, brainstorm ways as to how training can be implemented without neglecting your firm’s regular workload. It is important to determine who is eligible for cross training, and whether the training will be mandatory or voluntary. It is also essential to decide if the training will be administered internally or externally, and whether the training will be restricted within job classifications or open to other classifications. Prior to implementation, it might also be useful to pull together a task force of both management and employees and assess the feasibility of setting up a crosstraining program. Implementation should be planned, and a realistic schedule for each position should be established.

One of the first steps to setting up a cross-training program is to have each area or department within an organization write a list of the most important tasks and functions that are necessary to its day-to-day operations. These lists can then be analyzed to determine which should be included in the training program. Training can take place by having employees shadow others working in the position they are to learn, or supervisors can be asked to conduct all of the training. Consider the times of the year that are slower for the different divisions of your organization — these can be times for job shadowing. Employees undergoing training should be given time to absorb and practice the new information. Their regular workload should also be reduced during training so that they are not overwhelmed or asked to do too much. It might also be necessary to regularly evaluate the progress of newly trained employees.

How to ensure success

One of the most important factors needed to be successful with a cross-training program is to give it your full support as manager or owner; everyone needs to be on the same page. It is crucial to communicate to your employees that implementing a cross-training program is not a management conspiracy to eliminate jobs or replace employees in their positions. It must be stressed that these alterations will benefit both the company and the individuals involved. You may expect some resistance from your employees, and a way to ease acceptance of such a program is to address compensation changes early on. Employees are being asked to increase their skills; therefore, your firm should be willing to compensate them for it. Employees must also be made to feel that the extra effort they are putting in is being recognized.

Pitfalls that must be avoided include trying to establish a crosstraining program without a systematic approach, and failure to include employees and receive their input in the planning process. Other drawbacks include forcing the participation of reluctant employees; assuming employees are familiar with techniques necessary to successfully train others and not offering prior aid or instruction; penalizing employees who take part in the cross-training program by not reducing their usual workload accordingly; and by not recognizing employee efforts and new skill levels with increased compensation.

Chris Cancailosi, a writer for Forbes magazine, offers four tips for successful cross training. First, you need to create a culture of collective success. Many employees take pride in being indispensable. You as manager need to make it clear that your feed and grain firm values workers supporting one another, and that individual mistakes are company wide failures. Employees must learn that their ability to assist their co-workers in times of need will benefit them when they need additional support in return. Second, you should set formal expectations. It is a good idea to require employees to have at least one person who is capable of stepping into their position at any moment. Make this expectation mandatory, offer clear instructions, and supply adequate time for people to cross-train effectively. Third, test your success. Run simulations regularly to ensure that your cross-training program is meeting your expectations. If an employee is able to go away on vacation with absolutely no prior communication (something that should never actually happen), or more realistically if they should fall sick and need to be away from work for a bit of time, and someone is able to successfully step into that person’s position, then your program is a success. And finally, develop a feedback mechanism. This gives your employees an opportunity to express their opinions on the program, and offers you different perspectives on how to continuously improve your efforts.


Cross-training employees will give your organization durability. It places you in a sustainable position, and ensures that if an employee quits or takes a vacation, your business will not suffer. Cross training also gives your organization agility. Everyone wins — you can increase your employees’ skill sets and improve your business’s professional development, and your employees get the opportunity to learn new things, prepare to advance within your organization, and grow in their careers. Cross training also increases your organization’s flexibility and efficiency. You become better equipped to recover from disruptions and are prepared to handle transitions with grace and ease. During those seasonal times when one area of your organization is particularly busy, you may be able to make use of your cross trained employees. Lastly, crosstraining improves your company’s teamwork. Employees are given the chance to build new relationships, and the process provides them with a better understanding of your business as a whole. The key to successful company performance stems from your company’s workforce. Cross training will improve your feed and grain firm’s performance, unite your company’s workforce and propel your business forward in new ways. If you do decide to implement a cross-training program, careful planning and organization must not be overlooked.

Decide who to train, how to train them, and adjust their compensation and workload accordingly during the process. Once you have successfully implemented your cross-training program, look forward to and enjoy the advantages!

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