Training employees to handle more than one job provides flexibility in the face of shifting requirements.
As a mid-sized contract electronics manufacturer, we must be constantly able to adjust to fluctuations in operational workloads. And, at this size, we can’t shut down a line to accommodate for vacations and parental leave. Instead, we cross-train employees so that there is never an empty seat in our manufacturing process. Our experiences with cross-training employees may provide helpful ideas and guidance for other enterprises that also carefully manage capacity.
We operate two SMT lines, as well as a PTH line, with a total front- and back-office staff of roughly 45 employees. Over more than 25 years of operating in this way, we have learned a great deal and streamlined the process of cross-training. We’ve also realized a number of benefits that are perhaps not outwardly apparent, but which many other businesses could likely appreciate as well.
Because we are in the low-to-mid-volume, high-mix business, we see a constant fluctuation in workload by operation. In addition to doing PCB assembly we also do mechanical assembly, test, and after-market warranty work. Sometimes we’re run off our feet with SMT (surface mount technology) work; other times we are full-tilt on test, or on box builds.
The only viable means for a small business like ours to manage these workflows is to cross-train employees so that any employee can fulfill more than one operational focus area as required. We have a goal to never have an empty seat in our manufacturing plant – that is, to always have someone able to cover every job. Doing so ensures that we can remain responsive to customers. It’s also critical to being flexible to accommodate the variety of jobs we do in any given week or month.
Whatever your business is, it’s worthwhile to consider what opportunities there are internally for cross training and cross functionality. Following are some of the lessons we have learned along the path to achieving this goal.
Identify Areas Ideal for Cross-Training
Certain types of work lend themselves well to cross-training, while others absolutely require it. It’s useful to identify these areas and ensure you have them covered. For example, in our business, test and assembly are complementary jobs in that understanding one improves performance in the other.
Likewise, you can maximize cross-training in areas where it is natural. For example, machine operators can also set-up machines, but the reverse is not necessarily true. So, training set-up staff in machine operations is useful.
Consider, as well, areas where cross-training provides high value to the business. In a specialized function such as SMT machine operator, for instance, it could be detrimental to the business to have an empty seat. Cross training can minimize that risk.
Finally, management functions are ideal areas for cross-training. It makes sense for functional managers to know a bit – or a lot – about each other’s teams and processes. Our SMT and PTH line managers work closely together and either can assume the responsibilities of the other when needed. In fact, cross training employees between the lines also ensures that the managers are close.
Practice Makes Permanent
Because the goal of cross-training is to be always able to meet customer demand, training an employee in a new area is pointless if they are not able to practice and use their skills. So, practice time must be part of the cross-training process. We have learned to use slow periods to switch staff between departments, to learn new things, and to keep their skills fresh.
As a bonus, teaching another person something that you know how to do further reinforces and refines your own skills. So, practice time is as valuable for the employee who is teaching the skill as it is for the learner.
Make it Part of the Culture
One of the important lessons we’ve learned is that training, and in particular cross-training, needs to be a part of the corporate culture, or it simply doesn’t work. We’ve found these three elements are crucial if you want to ingrain cross-training – or anything, really – into corporate culture:
- Strategic decision – From the early years of our business, we recognized that, as a small business, we would need to excel at being flexible and adaptable. Cross-training was a natural course of action in achieving that strategy. When something makes sense in the big picture, everyone in the company can get on board with it.
- Hiring decisions – The workforce must reflect a company’s culture, goals, and strategy. The desire and ability to learn new things is therefore a significant element in our hiring decisions. Employees must be eager to learn, unselfish with their knowledge, and undaunted by regularly changing tasks.
- Processes – Generally speaking, if a corporate initiative has no processes around it – and no one responsible for the processes – the initiative won’t happen. For this reason, we keep records to track cross training. To be effective, our line managers need to know who can do what job at any given time, and record keeping makes that knowledge possible.
Respect the Individual
To be fully engaged and effective, an employee must feel respected. We strive to recognize the natural talents of each employee and to work with those when we make decisions about cross-training. It is counter-productive to force a square peg into a round hole, and it could be detrimental to quality as well. For example, to be good at inspection, an individual needs to have a keen eye and ability to attend to visual detail. A person with this talent elsewhere in life can likely be cross-trained on electronics inspection functions even if he or she does not have the direct experience.
Never a Bored Employee
The positive effect that cross-training has on employee morale can’t be understated. There’s no reason for any individual to be bored here, even when work in one functional area is slow. Cross-training also creates stronger bonds between employees and a deeper appreciation for each other’s skills and work. Although it is difficult to quantify this effect, we believe that cross-training is core to our culture, and we have always had a particularly low attrition rate, with many of our employees celebrating 10, 15, and 20 years with us.
What’s in it for the Customer
Of course, every strategic decision a company makes must have value to the customer. Through cross-training, we are able to strengthen our ability to deliver on time and with high quality. Although we’re a small company, we are flexible and adaptable.
Cross-training also helps us manage our costs. Not only does it prevent us from having to be over-staffed to meet fluctuations in demand, but higher employee morale and lower attrition keeps human resource management costs down as well.
Finally, the value of a stable and loyal stable of staff means that everyone feels they’re playing for the same team. High morale results in better quality and delivery to our customers.
George Henning, President, OCM Manufacturing, can be reached at 1 (800) 268-3961. www.ocmmanufacturing.com.