Within a lean work system the practice of job rotation serves the purpose of cross training and increased flexibility. This can be deliberate and time-based for repetitive manual work, such that people switch from one task to another every two hours or when a natural break occurs during the work day. As the work moves away from the physical and repetitive towards transactional, abstract or knowledge-based it becomes harder to build the cross-training within a work day, but it can and should be done, as arguably the benefits are far greater. At the other extreme, leadership development is aimed at creating successors within an organization by giving less experienced managers increasingly larger responsibilities, but cross training in this regard is often done on an ad hoc basis or not at all.
The introduction of a trainee into a process is often a cause for nervousness on the part of the new person. The new trainee is unfamiliar with the work, rarely has enough time to prepare, and will make mistakes. Being exposed comes with a certain degree of discomfort for most people. People do not like to expose their weaknesses, especially if they have been working successfully in a different job or process for a long time. Recognizing that there will always be an initial gap between desired and actual performance within a new job, the best way to view problems in cross training or learning a new job is to see the factors that make the job hard to learn as opportunities for kaizen. The problem is with the process, not the person.
Cross training helps to expose problems with the process such as difficult working conditions, vague standards and work instructions or incapable processes that require that people develop a feel or knack to perform properly. As different people attempt to do the job properly and fail, these hidden problems are quickly surfaced and can lead to kaizen. Promoting cross training and job rotation can be a great way to breathe life back into the kaizen efforts within a mature lean operation. Even when there is not a clear business case to cross train people, bringing in a finance person to do an engineer’s job reveals problems that lurk beneath the water.
We can view cross training as a way to test the hypotheses that processes are set up robustly enough to allow a new person to quickly get up to speed. Of course the vast majority of jobs will fail this process, the more so the further we move from simple, visible and physical processes. While we can’t spend all of our day willfully experimenting while on the job, if both the trainee and the trainer keep a learner’s mindset good things will happen, beyond finding kaizen opportunities in the process itself.
When problems with cross training are identified and addressed this helps to build mutual trust between supervisor and worker, trainer and trainee. This basic level of security that concerns will be heard and addressed is essential as a foundation of a high performance workplace. At the same time this trust creates an opportunity for the trainer to point out weaknesses or knowledge and skill gaps in the trainee. Ideally the trainer would also recognize the TWI adage “when the student hasn’t learn, the teacher hasn’t taught” and improve based on constructive criticism from self and others.
As people work together in training around a process, we can also gain deeper understanding about ourselves in terms of how we interact with the process, people and the learning environment. The Johari window is useful in framing these situations. The Johari window is a tool of cognitive psychology created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham to help people improve their interpersonal communication and relationships. The four panes of the window represent knowns and unknowns by oneself and by others. The typical Johari exercise involves placing a set of 56 words that describe one’s behaviors in the four panes, and the act of cross training can be a more dynamic and on-the-job version of such an exercise.
The idea with the Johari window is to increase the size of the “open” section of the window, creating greater understanding between people by reducing the unknowns. This requires curiosity, courage and a sense of purpose whether it be solving a problem or increasing one’s level of skill. Becoming aware of one’s own blind spots through help from others, as well as understanding one’s motives for keeping certain things hidden can also be avenues for growth. The uses are similar in terms of the use of Johari window as an enabler of job rotation, cross training and kaizen.
This need for cross training grounded in self-awareness, mutual trust and understanding is a topic that has importance beyond doing kaizen better and enabling lean operations. Recent unemployment statistics in the United States imply that while jobs are being created, many of the people who are jobless do not have the skills needed to fill these jobs. This is a problem both for the employer and the person seeking the job, a limiter to economic growth and prosperity. At the organizational level we need to do as much as possible to promote cross training. Applying the Johari window idea to the macro level, how well do we understand the “open” areas of our economy, the jobs that are being created versus the skills needed and available? And how aware are we of the hidden or unknown areas of our economy that have led to recent problems but also present future areas for growth? The opportunities to use this metaphorical window are many, most immediately with ourselves and our colleagues.