The Keys to Cross-Training Your Staff

April 29, 2011
Don’t let your business suffer because a key employee is absent. Cross-training your employees is the perfect remedy to keep work flowing through the shop.

Gerald McNee, owner of Ultimate Collision Repair in Edison, N.J., used to rely on one employee to run the paint department. McNee had three painter helpers, but only one actual painter. He learned the downfalls of relying on that one person the hard way.

One morning, the helpers were setting up when the painter called in to say he couldn’t make it to work. “We had three guys prepping for paint and we had no painter,” McNee says.

Talk about an “oh no” moment. McNee had no choice but to get on the phone with the customers and explain the situation. “Unfortunately, the best we could do was to tell the customers that their cars weren’t going to be done on time.”

At that moment, McNee knew he had to cross-train his employees so somebody is able to step in and pick up the slack if a key employee is out sick, on vacation, quits, or if a certain shop department happens to hit a bottleneck.

“You never want to have only one person who knows how to do a particular job in the shop,” says David Trissel, founder of Lean Business Solutions in San Diego. “You never want a single point of failure, because that’s when bottlenecks occur.”

Cross-training is highly important for shop operations, McNee says. “Without cross-training, you can easily witness your cycle time increase and CSI scores drop.”

“You should never have to rely on only one or two people to get a certain aspect of the repair process done.”
— Gerald McNee, owner, Ultimate Collision Repair

Cross-training is the perfect solution to keep jobs moving through your shop, even when you’re short handed. Figure out which areas of the shop are most critical for you to have extra help, and put a long-term plan in place for how you’re going to make it happen. Do this, and you’ll find yourself on the path to becoming a lean facility.

Add Skills, Add Value

Shop owners should always be thinking about cross-training because of the inconsistent flow of work they routinely experience, says Randy Dewing, senior manager of PPG’s MVP Business Solutions Group. That inconsistent flow of work can cause bottlenecks in one area of the shop, while employees in other areas are sometimes left standing around. The result? Decreased efficiency and increased cycle time.

“If the shop is jam-packed with work, you need to have people who are able to lend a hand,” McNee says. “You should never have to rely on only one or two people to get a certain aspect of the repair process done.”

But Trissel says this is exactly what tends to happen in the body shop world: Work stops because a shop is waiting on somebody to get to it. Shops often wait an entire day to get things done because there isn’t anybody else who is trained to help out.

Cross-training not only puts a fail-safe plan in place when you find yourself in a jam, but also makes your employees much more valuable to the business.

“The more employees know, the more talented they are, and the more experience they have, the more they mean to me,” McNee says. “Employees who can play multiple roles in the shop are much more valuable.”

Traditionally, shops will have a building full of individuals who work in their own area without much regard to what’s going on in other departments, says Larry Edwards, chairman of Edwards & Associates Consulting Inc., based in Harrisburg, N.C. But cross-training solves that problem by improving teamwork in the shop.

That’s because cross-training helps employees brainstorm better processes to implement to become more efficient when they understand processes in other departments, says Anthony Greenhalgh, body shop manager at Jerry Seiner Chevrolet in Salt Lake City. “You don’t have one guy standing in the corner doing one thing all day long,” he says. “The employees are constantly communicating to help each other out.”

Make A Plan

When it comes to cross-training, the ultimate goal for shops should be to have every employee trained in every shop process, Trissel says. That’s obviously not realistic in the short term. But make that your long-term goal, and put plans in place that will allow you to achieve that over a period of time.

How do you do that? There are a few steps to follow to make it happen:

• Identify your needs. Take a good look around your shop. Identify the areas where you tend to be the most inefficient and where bottlenecks chronically occur, Edwards says. In addition, identify areas where you have a single point of failure—where you have only one person who knows how to do a job. Those are the best places to start with cross-training.

Greenhalgh witnessed a heavy unevenness of work at the shop when he became shop manager in 2008. There were times when the body department was absolutely dead and the frame department had a line of cars waiting.

“Nobody could get in there to help because none of our other technicians were trained to get cars on the rack,” Greenhalgh says, noting the shop routinely had cycle times in the double digits. That was one of the first areas where Greenhalgh decided to get some technicians cross-trained so they could help relieve that constant clog. Cycle time has since decreased to 4.5 days.

• Identify the type of training needed. Figure out whether your employees need to undergo formal training to get cross-trained, or if they can be trained onsite in the shop, Trissel says.

If your employees need formal training, like I-CAR courses or other specialty classes, plan to spend about $600 per technician to get them fully trained in another area, Greenhalgh says. It takes about one year for employees to get up to speed with the new skill.

Some training can be done in the shop—for free. Consider implementing a shadow or mentorship program, Trissel says. Pair an inexperienced technician with a veteran. Have the veteran mentor the inexperienced technician on a new process or task on one job each week.

If you choose to do this, plan out specific times and days of the week that employees will be trained, Dewing says.

• Put a training plan in place. Edwards suggests developing a training calendar each year.

Look 12 months out, Edwards says. Identify what training courses your employees need to take, when they’re offered and where they’re offered. Put those items on a calendar. Then you’re able to create a full, yearlong plan of what you will accomplish, when it will be accomplished, and how much it will cost you.

That will help you plan for the best times for technicians to be away from the shop, and allow you to budget enough money so you can afford to pay for it.

Greenhalgh put together training binders for each of his employees, which he refers to as “Team Playbooks.” The binder, which he discusses with each employee during their annual review, outlines skills Greenhalgh wants his employees to obtain throughout the year, offers a step-by-step process of how they will get there, when the training needs to be completed, and how much his monetary investment will be to train that employee.

“The only way to get work to flow, and keep flowing, is to have employees cross-trained.”
— David Trissel, founder, Lean Business Solutions

“We put this plan in writing because they are goals that both myself and my technicians want to meet,” says Greenhalgh, who compensates his employees for the extra time they spend in training.

• Track your progress. Trissel suggests setting up a cross-training matrix, a chart that breaks down every process in the shop, every employee you have, and which employees have been trained for each process. Ideally, you want to have the entire matrix filled out, Trissel says. The more filled out you can get your training matrix, the better.

To download a sample training matrix, go to

Walk A Lean Path

Before Greenhalgh took control of the body shop at Jerry Seiner Chevrolet, the shop had one technician who specialized in repairing Corvettes. Every single Corvette that came into the shop went to that technician, regardless of the situation. In fact, those jobs were given to that technician even when he wasn’t there.

“If that technician went on a weeklong vacation and a Corvette came in, the job would just sit there until he came back to work,” Greenhalgh says.

For those shops in the middle of a lean journey or those thinking about implementing lean processes soon, that’s clearly not a process model to replicate.

Lean is about becoming more efficient and continuously improving, Trissel says. And cross-training can help you do just that.

Why? Well, for one, with cross-trained employees you’ll be able to rely on all of your employees to keep work moving. And two, cross-trained employees bring a fresh perspective to the job, which might just allow them to come up with ideas to improve processes in other departments, Trissel says.

Without cross-training, facility utilization in body shops tends to be about 50 to 60 percent, Edwards says. But shops that do cross-train their employees often run at nearly 100 percent utilization, which leads to improved cycle times and a greater ability to grow the business. And that’s something any shop owner could see the benefits of.

“The only way to get work to flow—and keep flowing—is to have employees cross-trained,” Trissel says.

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