When the Experts Are Absent: Cross-training Works - BodyShop Business
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When the Experts Are Absent: Cross-training Works

Do you dread employees going on vacation or calling in sick because your shop can’t function without them? Do you dread being sick or going on vacation because your shop can’t function without you? If so, cross-train to create substitutes who fill in when the experts aren’t there.

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The first time I wrote about cross-training people in our industry was way back in 1991, when I was doing the rough draft for a small book titled, "Taking Care of Business." The book is out of print now, but the message applies just as much or more today.

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My background for cross-training is from my experience in the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) from 1965-’68. The special forces then — and today — are cross-trained in more than one specialty or field of expertise.

The words cross-training, in my opinion, are best described as the ability to function or work in other fields — if needed — with respectable ability in those fields. It doesn’t mean you’ll be an expert in a cross-trained field, but you will be able to do the job if and when an emergency arises.

When I joined the Army in 1965, I was schooled in basic and advanced training, and then I went to parachute school and learned to jump out of perfectly functioning airplanes. After that, I went through jungle-warfare training and some other physically difficult schools that were too strenuous for some of my friends. Next, I went through light-weapons training as a refresher of the advanced school I’d taken after basic training.

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After several months, I began to wonder why all this training was necessary — especially since I’d been selected to attend special-forces medical school, which was more than one year long in itself.

At medical school, we learned what today would be much like a physician’s assistant job. In fact, many of my former special-forces medical classmates are now surgeons and doctors. I should note that only about 10 percent of my friends accepted into the school graduated the long course; it was very difficult.

When I arrived in Vietnam in 1967, the cross-training I’d received was immediately put to daily use. On more than one occasion, I found myself in a dangerous situation, with no one else available to radio in evacuation aircraft or give location grids or coordinates — none of which were my specialty. I also had team sergeants, officers, and communications and demolition men help me in the middle of the night when I had a jungle full of wounded people. We all helped each other, and it was more than a nice gesture; it kept people alive.

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I delivered babies, operated on life-threatening wounds in a helicopter while flying evasion, treated diseases we don’t see anymore in this country, used explosives and more. As far as intelligence operations, I learned to listen and learn before acting. It was all good career training, and I still use some of the same principles today in my shop and in my law-enforcement career.

With that said, I’ve hopefully enlightened you a little as to why cross-training is important. Now, let me tell you about the cross-training we’ve done this year at my shop to give you an idea of how it applies to the collision business.

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Missed Details
Several months ago, my long-time detailer, Melvin, began having high-blood-pressure problems that required immediate treatments, medication and time off work. He endured several tests and is currently on medication that allows him to do his job as always. For a period of almost a month, however, his absence almost wrecked my shop.

Melvin is highly skilled and has been detailing cars for more than 20 years. We became so relaxed having him here that we neglected to train anyone else to do the extensive detailing he does daily. When he was out sick, my only option was to do the job myself or have my paint supervisor do it. I can detail, but I learned quickly that I cannot detail as fast as Melvin. My biggest problem, however, was keeping the sweat off the vehicle as I worked. I was not the answer to our problem, so the painters all helped and we suffered through late deliveries and overlooked items. (Melvin doesn’t miss much.)

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We rejoiced when a healthy Melvin returned to work. We also hired a young man with body training. His assignment for the first year of employment? To master detailing from Melvin — and then to teach his replacement his job. The new man has quickly proven his ability, and Melvin can relax some and teach this youngster the fine points we desire in a detailer.

When we move the young man into the body shop, it will be after six months of wet sanding, prepping and working in the paint shop. He will have been employed at B & J Collision for 18 months before we put him in the metal shop as a helper. If he does a good job, he’ll begin doing metal work after about two years. If he makes it there — and I think he will — I’ll have a cross-trained employee who can work in several jobs as needed.

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I’ll pay for all his training and schooling because I consider it an investment. I don’t think shop owners will find good employees in the future — we’ll have to grow them inside our shops, one at a time. I believe in hiring good people, and then it’s up to us to teach them the skills needed to become good employees.

When the Office Is Empty …
The second thing that happened this year pertains to the front office. I wanted to send my long-time manager, Harry, to a school in California for a week this summer. In the past, I’ve worked the office, written estimates and done whatever needed done when Harry wasn’t around. But I couldn’t be the replacement this year due to my law-enforcement career and possible court appearances, etc. I work at the shop each week, but I’m not there every day.

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We’ve been cross-training our office manager, Nancy, on estimates, electronic transfers of digital photos, files, etc., but I haven’t had the time to really teach her to do top-quality estimates. The solution wasn’t easy, but after careful thought, we sent Nancy to Vale Tech in Dallas for two weeks to learn estimating and structural-damage analysis. (While Nancy was at school, we discovered how much we took for granted all she did each week.) When Nancy returned, she had a solid grasp of writing estimates. She now does every other estimate that arrives, and Harry works with her daily to teach her each step she needs to know to do his job this summer. I’m very impressed with how much Nancy learned in two weeks of training, and I’m proud of her. She’ll continue to be an asset to my company in the future.

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Getting Things Straight
I have one other area of cross-training I’m addressing this year. My shop foreman and frame technician, Ken, is now training another employee, Mike, to do his old job on our benchrack. Ken was a machinist by trade and is a perfectionist when it comes to frames, structure and electronics. Ken’s age and health have slowed him down a bit, so last year we decided to begin the process of training another metal tech to take over Ken’s responsibility in the frame area. Ken agreed when I told him he couldn’t retire. If necessary, I’d roll him around all day on a cart to keep him working for us. Ken is one of those people everyone loves. I need him in my shop with all my technicians who — you’ll be surprised to learn — have strong egos. Ken can manage all of them, and I need him off the frame bench and moving around the shop all day, every day.

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Ken was responsible for training Mike about a year ago and, in a few more months, Mike will do all the structural work for the shop. When Ken tells me Mike’s ready, we’ll send him to our bench manufacturer’s school. When he returns, he’ll take over the structural work. Mike will also begin the long process of cross-training another metal tech. (And Ken will be available if Mike’s on vacation or away from work.)

Call In the Substitutes
I want every employee or manager at my shop to be able to do everyone else’s job in the future, if needed. When someone — an employee or me — is out sick or away for any reason, I want my shop to continue running smoothly and for us to continue delivering vehicles that represent our best work.

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From listening to consolidators and other successful companies, I learned they ask a valuable question: Can your shop run well when you’re not there?

That’s a value they perceive as vital to your business, and it’s something they look at before deciding to acquire a facility.

One way to get your shop to this level — where it functions with or without you there — is by cross-training everyone in your shop in two or more areas or skills. The time you spend doing this now will pay great dividends in the future. It will also remove much stress from you and your staff, and it will help to build a solid organization of valuable employees.

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Writer Bobby Johnson and his wife, Judi, own B&J Collision, Inc. in Jefferson, Texas. A contributing editor to BodyShop Business, Bobby has been involved in many areas of this industry for more than 26 years and was BodyShop Business’ 1989 Collision Repair Shop Executive of the Year.

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