The Importance of Cross-training and Succession Planning in the Days of COVID

When companies are running short of employees and can’t find people to fill the vacancies they do have, they run into all kinds of problems. In the everyday world, we can see it in fast food restaurants that can’t find enough people to fill their openings. They’re closing their stores an extra day per week or a few hours early.

Factories that are currently fully staffed have a bit of a luxury right now, as they aren’t in a mad scramble to find new talent. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be.

While those $20 – $30/hour jobs are probably pretty easy to fill, we’re already seeing that the six-figure, highly-skilled jobs are a pain to fill, let alone find backups for.

The reason managers are short of people is maybe more political than it is practical right now, but regardless of the cause, it certainly raises the imperative in terms of filling those roles.

And it suggests that cross-training everybody within your organization may be the soundest strategy for the current employment climate.

Two workers discussing a building that's being built. It's an illustration for cross-training workers to create positive redundancies in the factory.The reason for cross-training is so you have people internally who can do more than one thing at a time. In factory terms, it may mean having someone who can operate three or four different machines, or it may even be something as simple as having several people who are trained and certified to operate a forklift.

If you’re doing it properly, you should have three or four people who can perform several different tasks to help you fill unexpected needs.

Anthony Bourdain wrote about a similar concept in his book, Kitchen Confidential: a squad of porters employed by the restaurateur known only as “Bigfoot.”

He retained, among other deeply flawed outcasts who’d inexplicably sworn loyalty oaths and joined up for the duration, a Presidential Guard of blue-uniformed porters whom he had personally trained in the manly arts of refrigeration repair, plumbing, basic metalwork, glazing, electrical repair, and maintenance. In addition to the usual tasks of cleaning, mopping, toilet-plunging, and porter work, Bigfoot porters could lay tile, dig out a foundation, build you a lovely armoire or restore a used reach-in refrigerator to factory specs. Nothing pissed off Bigfoot more than having to pay some high-priced specialist for a job he thought he should be able to do himself.

We did something similar when I managed our factories. My original concept was based on the U.S. and U.K. military special forces (Green Berets, Navy Seals, British SAS). In those situations, small groups of individuals, not large groups, operate to complete missions. Each member of a team has a specialty, but they can perform the task of everyone else on their team. They’re cross-trained at all the tasks, but they’re the best at one or two of them.

What’s interesting is that in those situations, the rank of the individual doesn’t matter when giving orders. A lowly trooper could lead a team on a mission because of his particular skill. Even if a captain is on the team, he will report to that trooper because of his specialty.

Under those circumstances, it’s been proven that Special Forces teams have been able to withstand and come through an awful lot, because they never have a deficiency in their ranks. Even if they lose someone who specialized in, say, demolitions or communications, everyone else knew how to do the job and could carry on if that team member went down.

That’s the concept I always used from a cross-training point of view: by having more than one or two people who knew how to do a particular job, I would never have a bottleneck in production because we lost a critical person.

By keeping everyone cross-trained, everyone was important, but everyone was also replaceable.

Believe it or not, you actually want to be replaceable in your role: It’s how you move up the ladder.

How Cross-Training Helps With Succession Planning

People who take on more and more skills and knowledge during cross-training become easier to identify when you’re looking for someone with leadership skills if you ever need to move someone up. Someone in your organization may quit, get fired, or even die, but if you don’t have someone lined up to step up, you might as well just draw a name out of a hat to find the replacements.

In most organizations, succession ends up being about seniority and who’s been around the longest. Except that turns out to be the worst type of succession you could ever have.

Just because someone has been around longer doesn’t mean they’re smarter. Time served does not indicate leadership qualities. Someone who has been around one year could be smarter than the person around for 10 years.

Of course, there’s the expectation that the 10-year person “should” get the job as a reward for their service, but they could be as dumb as a box of rocks, and best suited for the job they already have.

(Remember, the Peter Principle says that a person will be promoted to a position they’re not suited for, which leaves a company full of incompetent managers.)

I think we promote people for the wrong reasons and put people into leadership roles who frankly don’t have the capacity to perform at that level. They’re just fine at their current level. They excel at their current level! But too often, people get promoted for any number of misguided reasons, and you lose that person’s peak skills and abilities.

You can identify your next set of leaders through vigorous cross-training.

How seriously do people take to it and how well do they do it? Do they help others or do they just fold their arms and act like they’re too good to learn a different job? (Imagine how either attitude will play out in a leadership role.) Cross-training can give you real-world evidence of a person’s abilities, skills, and diligence. It’s where some of your most unlikely people suddenly shine.

Can You Have Someone Who’s Too Good to Move on?

Yes, you can, because it’s the difference between a leader and a manager. For instance, you can have a manager who is too good to move on. They’re great at the functions of that role, and they probably know it better than anyone else. They’re nearly irreplaceable and their department may suffer if they finally do leave the position.

But if the person is a leader, you absolutely should move them on to the new position. That way, they’ll keep learning and growing and improving. They’ll keep bringing good people along with them to replace them in their old position, and you’ll avoid the problems of the Peter Principle.

The best leaders are already grooming their replacements from day 1, because they know they’re not going to be there permanently. They also know if they’re too good to move, then they won’t. So they prepare their successor, build their processes, and train the next person on how things should be done in the future.

The benefit to the company is the managers are left in their ideal spots and the leaders will fill in the ranks around them. The company is firing on all cylinders, and you won’t have to worry about a staffing shortage because your best people will be able to fill in where needed.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Jarmoluk (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.