LinkedIn Article: How Can We Increase Cross Training to Better Serve Customers?


Here is an article I posted yesterday to LinkedIn: 

An Airline Worker's Lament: “They Won't Let Me Help You.

On LinkedIn, I'm writing for a more general business audience than I am here on In the situation at the ticket counter, it seemed like a situation where a worker wanted to help the customers (the passengers), but wasn't allowed to. She said she wanted to help but said “They [management] won't let me help you. It's not my job. They only give us this one little job and we can just tag bags.”

I don't blame the woman for staying within her job boundaries. But, there's such waste that comes from not cross-training people to their full ability (and full interest).

The old Taylorist system aimed to break down jobs into small, easily-trainable chunks of work, thereby making the workers easily replaceable. This feeds into the mindset of a command-and-control manager in that they are the boss and they are powerful. Do as I say, or you'll be fired!

In comparison, a Lean culture cross trains people… building their skills (and their value to the organization) and often increasing their pay accordingly (instead of chasing cheap labor, as many big companies do).

What cross training opportunities do you have in your organization? What can you do in 2014 to break down silos between jobs so that your employees can work as a team for the benefit of patients or customers?

Feel free to add your comments at LinkedIn or comment below on this post.

The Full Article

Organizations usually realize it's a problem when an employee says, usually in a huff, “That's not my job.” Customers get angry hearing that. Managers often blame the employees for having a bad attitude, for not being willing to help out.

But, what happens when it's the organization that's interfering with the employee doing everything they can to serve customers?

Last month, I was trying to travel home through a snowstorm and I got rebooked by American Airlines onto some Delta flights. I had to go, with some other customers, to the Delta ticket counter to get our new tickets finalized. There was a bit of a line and the woman directly in front of me was getting frustrated that she was going to miss her rebooked flight because of the queue.

Ticket agents told her multiple times to use one of the idle check-in kiosks, but the kiosks weren't working for any of the rebooked passengers (and they weren't really listening to her say that she had tried the kiosk).

All of the ticket agents were working hard, keeping busy helping other customers. But, there was another Delta employee, in the same uniform, just standing behind the counter, doing nothing. It would be really easy for someone to assume she was a lazy employee.

I stepped out of the line and asked the idle employee gently, “Can you please help the woman in front of me? She's afraid she will miss her flight.”

The Delta employee lamented, “They won't let me help you. It's not my job. They only give us this one little job and we can just tag bags.”

She looked frustrated, as if she wanted to help… but it's likely that a lack of training or rigid job rules (imposed by the company or, perhaps, a union) prevented her from doing so. It's a shame that she hadn't been cross trained to help check in other passengers, especially since she genuinely seemed to want to help (and she wasn't very busy tagging bags).

I believe strongly that most everybody comes to work to do a good job. They want to serve customers (or, in healthcare, serve patients) and they would rather be doing something helpful (adding value to a customer) rather than doing nothing. This situation seemed to illustrate that. I believe she wanted to help… but I certainly don't blame her for standing there and doing what she was apparently told to do — to tag bags and only tag bags.

This isn't the case of a bad employee, but rather a bad system – a system that apparently prevents somebody from being able to help the customer.

Looking at our own organizations, what can we do to break down barriers between job functions? Sometimes, we need to negotiate more flexible union contracts that reduce the number of job classes, as GM and other automakers have done over the last 20 years – to mirror Toyota and their more flexible workforce. Other times, the constraints are imposed by management and things can be changed, if we put our minds to it.

The most effective organizations will use slow periods to cross-train workers, which builds their skills and value to the company. Some organizations will give pay increases based on the number of jobs and roles that are learned, such as Nick Sarillo and Nick's Pizza Pub. Great organizations aren't afraid to invest in their employees and they aren't afraid to pay them more, as a result. This often happens in companies that practice “Lean” management methods, based on the Toyota Production System. Employees in a Lean organization are valued as partners, not just a cost, and they are fully engaged, cross-trained, and flexible. Everybody wins.

It seems too many organizations still suffer from the old “Taylorist” mindset of Frederick W. Taylor. The industrial mindsets of over 100 years ago taught that we need to, basically, “dumb down” jobs and make the divisions of labor so small as to make workers interchangeable cogs who can be paid a bare minimum. The threat of being easily replaceable plays into the fear-based “command and control” management model that is, unfortunately, still far too common in far too many industries.

We can do better. We need to do better. Can we make a commitment, in 2014 to increase the flexibility of our workforce to be able to provide better service to customers — and better business results, whether we are in a factory, a pizza shop, an airport, or a hospital? What does your department or organization plan to do to reduce the “they won't let me help you” moments?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Hi Mark

    I fully agree with you about the importance of cross training, but with it comes one other need, you actually have to allow them to do the other jobs when needed. I have seen it happen often that people know what needs to be done, yet no one allows them to actually step in and help out were required.

  2. We do pretty well cross training our front line workers. They learn a variety of jobs and get to practice them out of necessity in a business where different tasks have different seasonal workload peaks. If you only know one job, you might not have any work for a few months. The business benefits from lower employee turnover and more committed, engaged employees. Employees benefit from more diverse work and work environment, and continuity of employment.

    My challenge is supervisors and team leaders. With the greater depth of knowledge and experience required at this level, I find (generally) a greater rigidity and reluctance to consider change and improvement than among front line workers. I’m looking at cross-training at this level for the purpose of promoting creative thinking and mutual support among peers, vs. the usual goals of cross training at the front line. Not just silos to break down but rigid perspectives and habits. Any thoughts on the matter?

    • Good question, Andrew. How do we cross train managers? Rotate them through different departments (every six months?) instead of letting them get too fixated on one particular silo? Are there other ways of promoting value stream thinking or cooperation across departments?

      Some of this has to do with incentives… I’ve heard hospital department managers admit they KNEW they were doing suboptimizing things, but they were only doing what their budget and annual review process was driving them to do.


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