There are few things more dangerous in business than irreplaceable personnel. If that person gets sick or leaves, a huge hole is left that no one immediately knows how to fill. For this reason it is critical that staff is cross-trained to know how to do others jobs and fill in should an emergency require it. But that’s not as easy as it sounds…
I felt the real pain of failing to create back up staff one time when a key person left. I’d known for months I wasn’t up to speed on her tasks and that more than 50% of what she did wasn’t repeatable by anyone else in the company, but I kept putting off cross training because we were too busy. I learned what busy was after she left as the whole team scrambled to pick up all the pieces that dropped. It was a hard lesson.
Creating back up staff is more than just having someone sit down and learn what another person does and how the task is accomplished. There are some key elements you need to pay attention to so the back up training sticks and you can have confidence in the cross training.
- The more critical the task, the more critical back up personnel selection is. If the task is simple, such as operating the postage machine when the office administrator is out, anyone can learn it. If the task is more complicated, like shutting down the nuclear reactor before it goes into meltdown, pay special attention to who is selected to train as the back up. (How’s that for extreme ends of the spectrum?)
- Don’t rush the training. The person being cross trained comes with a slew of emotions not normally present in a person training for their own job. These emotions will affect how they perceive and incorporate the training into their knowledge base. Make sure they have enough time to assimilate the knowledge, ask questions, and show their trainer how they would perform the task.
- Document the individual tasks thoroughly. This should hold true for all tasks in a company (see E-myth Revisted) but is especially true in this situation. The back up personnel, depending on the size of the task, will likely be feeling some stress over performing a task they don’t do regularly. Having clear documentation on the steps necessary to perform that task will ensure they don’t miss key points and will give them a greater sense of security while doing the work.
- Have back up personnel perform the task regularly so they can maintain their training. Learning a task and then not performing it for six months will put the back up personnel in a pretty tough spot. Their manager assumes they know it and expects performance but it has been so long since they learned it that they can’t remember all the nuances. This problem is greatly compounded if task documentation wasn’t performed correctly. Have the back up perform the task under supervision of the primary task holder on a regular basis. How often will depend on the complexity of the task.
- Have a plan if the back up personnel are also gone. This is where documentation really comes in handy because someone is going to have to try and do the task with little to no training based on following the documentation. This is also a good way to test the thoroughness of your documentation; give it to someone who hasn’t seen it and have them perform the task based on its instructions.
Cross training isn’t hard, but it is important and worth making time for now. Putting it off raises risk. It also has the added benefit of helping staff understand co-worker’s jobs better. My advice is to start with the most critical tasks and get them done one at a time. It keeps cross training from being too overwhelming to the management team.