Cross-training employees will better position companies for crisis flu outbreak

Jeff Kerlin, general manager of Menomonee Falls-based Tailored Label Products, believed in the importance of cross-training his employees even before the threat of H1N1 Influenza. His company though, might be better positioned for an outbreak because of the practices he already has in place.

“We had a policy put in place about four years ago,” Kerlin said. “Every single employee in our shop from shipping to press operators is fully trained to perform three different functions.”

According to Kerlin, that also means that every function on the floor has at least three independent personnel that can do that job.

Tailored Label developed a matrix for its employees that displays the functions they have received training on and rates their efficiency level at an A,B, or C.

“The rating scale indicates their level of proficiency on that function,” Kerlin said. “If they have an A it means they are fully trained. They’ve signed off on being fully trained and they are essentially a rock star at performing that task.”

A ‘B’ indicates that the employee is fully trained, but only operates at about an 80 percent proficiency level, and a C indicates the employee has a basic understanding of the task but it’s really limited, Kerlin said.

“We use those proficiency ratings when we do our evaluations, and try to work with employees to groom them in certain tasks,” he said. “It has been very handy for us when people are sick, and also worked well when we were forced to make lay offs.”

Early this year, Kerlin was forced to make three layoffs. The matrix clearly showed the progress of employees, and they were able to cut individuals with little to no slow down because the laid off individuals were not trained on as many pieces of equipment as the retained employees.

Tailored Label has implemented the same matrix procedure in the office with its account management team.

If the Tailored Label Team gets struck by the H1N1 Virus, Kerlin is confident the company would be ok because of the cross training matrix.

“It would depend on how hard we got hit, but we definitely have all the skill sets covered,” Kerlin said. “We could probably lose five to ten percent of our workforce to the flu and still be able to function.”

“Specifically in small to medium sized businesses, not having the proper cross training program set in place can really be detrimental to the company’s functionality,” said Lori Zimmer, owner and president of business consulting firm Momentum LLC in Menomonee Falls. “Those small to midsize companies just don’t have the depth to only have one person exclusively trained for one particular position.”

Zimmer encourages her clients to consult with a professional to determine where the weakest areas of the company are.

“Companies need to determine which part of the company is going to be the most severely hit when someone is going to be gone,” Zimmer said. “If they don’t, a lot of times they have to stop functioning, and if they stop functioning they lose money as well as potential clients.”

Zimmer and her company are big proponents in company cross training, and the ability to have multiple people do multiple jobs.

“Nobody ever knows exactly what is going to happen,” she said. “And especially now with the threat of swine flu and the economy the way it is companies can not afford to have to stop production. They need to be prepared ahead of time for those kinds of threats.”

Kerlin met some resistance when first implementing his matrix cross-training plan, particularly from the people who have been at the company a long time, he said.

“It was a little difficult at first, some of the old timers in the company were upset because they had been doing the same job for 15 years, and they were good at it,” he said. “We really needed to be sensitive to their concerns because we valued their expertise, and needed them to stay.”

To calm some of the fears associated with job security, Kerlin had to stress to his employees that while someone else might be learning their job, they were learning at least two other individual’s jobs at the same time.

“The biggest aspect in addressing some of the fear and resistance is honest and open communication,” Zimmer said. “Companies need to be straight forward and let their employees know why they are doing the cross training, and why in the long run it will be beneficial for the company.”

Zimmer also indicated that cross training employees is not only good for the company, in a lot of ways it is good for the individual employee as well. Through cross training, employees are given the opportunity to grow without having to leave the company and they aren’t allowed to become stagnant or bored with their position.

“We are there now,” Kerlin said. “At first it took a little convincing, but now we find that the employees really like it. It makes them stronger employees if they can get exposed to more and get more opportunities because of that exposure. We even have people asking now to get more training on certain functions. I think it makes them feel more alive in their job.”

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display