In any company, making employees familiar with more than one job is critical to developing the business and dealing with the unexpected.

Held Hostage

One company suffered for years with a highly paid controller who was a disruptive influence. The owner was afraid to fire her because she was the only one who knew the accounting system.

Finally, the owner began cross training another employee and after a few months, that employee knew enough to let the controller take early retirement.

The result: A healthier atmosphere and significant payroll savings since the new controller's salary was lower.

A sure-fire strategy for coping with unforeseen circumstances is a cross training program.

Learning more than one job gives team members a look at the whole operation and keeps them motivated. It also saves money and builds a solid succession plan.

Above all, cross training makes your staff more valuable and helps ensure that your company will never be held hostage by employees who regard themselves as "indispensable."

So train your filing clerk to fill in for the receptionist, train the receptionist to cover for a sales rep and train one department head to fill in for another.

Here are seven cross training tips to keep your company in top condition:

  1. Facilitate the buy-in.Present cross training as a learning opportunity for everyone. Ask staff members for suggestions and feedback.2. Help them see the big picture.Written job descriptions are useful, but they shouldn't be carved in marble. Let descriptions cover secondary, overlapping duties. Employees get a better understanding of the whole process and a glimpse of opportunities in the company.3. Start a lending program. Let one department borrow an employee from another department to play a role in a project. Let's say you want to put out an annual report. Allow a clerk in accounting to help out on that project. It may take only a few hours a week, but it gives the employee a sense of value, which is critical to job satisfaction and retention. It also helps avoid the problem of departments becoming too proprietary and seeing themselves as isolated instead of part of a process.4. Set up a "honcho for a day" program. Give solid performers a one-day training session as a department head. Top managers and their assistants can cross-train in different positions. Another technique: When a manager is traveling or on vacation, let a top employee fill in, rather than automatically turning to another manager. Having the added perspective of being in charge even for a little while may help these employees to begin to think in terms of problem solving, rather than always turning to managers for solutions. It may also cause employees to have a new appreciation for what is involved in managing.5. Shake things up. Cross training can revive poor performers. Temporarily moving to a different job or department can cause warning bells to go off. Often, the employees return to their usual jobs with a better attitude.6. Rotate jobs. Put staff members in other positions for anywhere from one month to six months. Make them completely responsible for the jobs, rather than treat them as trainees. They may complain at first, but you can point out to them that knowing more than one job makes them more valuable.7. Groom for the future. Start training successors for key positions while top managers are still on board. This prevents a succession crisis. Identify all the positions that are critical to a smooth operation, then train likely candidates to assume those jobs. After all, you could lose a key manager without warning, so it pays to be prepared.

A well-planned cross training program can boost motivation, increase productivity, rejuvenate departments, and promote teamwork. If it's not a cure for what ails your company, it's certainly a good start.