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Cross-Training

by John Richardson

You're gearing up for your biggest moneymaking night of the week. You're booked wall-to-wall, and as you check and double-check to make sure everything is in order, you receive the "dreaded telephone call." One of your best bussers or servers can't make it in tonight. It's a familiar scenario in the restaurant business.

If you've experienced this situation, you already have an appreciation for cross-training. Think fast. You could call in a replacement, but that's easier said than done at the last minute. Even if you can pull it off, it will cost you a little extra, perhaps a dinner or two on his or her next night off. In my years as a server, I've found that tipped employees, accustomed to a little something extra, will expect some kind of baksheesh, i.e. a gratuity or bribe.

But if you have a cross-trained staff, you can do some reshuffling of the floor chart and with a bit of extra effort from everyone, escape annihilation beneath that runaway locomotive. You've probably heard the term cross-training in the context of athletics, as in developing skills and performance in a number of areas. But cross-training is also applied in the workplace, and can benefit any organization. This is especially true in the restaurant business, where staff shortages and turnover are regular parts of the landscape.

In business, cross-training is the practice of training employees to perform tasks and duties outside of their regular roles. The goal is to build a staff that can pinch-hit in a variety of functions when called upon. Ideally, it allows your business to function with a lean staff, without constant fear of being caught understaffed. You don't need a great deal of imagination to appreciate when cross-training might come in handy. You just need one Saturday night, similar to the above scenario.

A Test of Management and Staff

Let's say your bartender or host is a no-show. What if you could put a cross-trained server on bar duty, and divide his station among four or five other servers who will be only too happy to help out because it means gaining another table for their station. Of course, it is easier said than done, since you are involved in a chess game with people, who have feelings, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. As the operator or manager, you need to be available to shore up weak spots, and to help out as necessary throughout the shift. This means not only being available to assist the shuffled employee, but also keeping an eye on servers or bussers who may have picked up extra tables, or the front door staff, who may have given up a greeter or seater. Your motivational skills will also be tested, because when you make these switches everyone has to pull some additional weight for that shift.

Also tested will be the resiliency of your crew. One of the hallmarks of an experienced restaurant crew is grace under pressure and flexibility. You get this through careful hiring, but you nurture it through skilled management. Lineup is a good time to play up the need for teamwork and mutual assistance. Just be sure to send out the SOS loud and clear. And thank everyone, profusely.

In this regard, think of cross-training as a skills-fitness program, a workout for workplace proficiencies. Hearkening back to the sports metaphor, while a triathlete might not be the best marathon runner, swimmer or cyclist, she is strong enough in each event to win triathlons. She is willing to work particularly hard at events in which she is not strong. Flexibility and attitude go a long way for triathlon competitors and cross-trained restaurant staff members. Consider this during your next hiring round.

Cross-Training Reaps Unexpected Payoffs

Increased flexibility and versatility. The most apparent, and probably the most valuable benefit of cross-training is a staff that can quickly adapt to the needs of the business. You're dealing with the public, and the human element complicates any equation. In a factory, on an assembly line, each worker knows exactly what's coming next. They even know how fast it's coming and how long it will be in their workspace. Not so in the restaurant business. Restaurant managers would probably like nothing more than to know what's coming down the pike, and to be able to adjust and prepare for those peaks and valleys in levels of business, to staff appropriately and to make sure the kitchen has prepped adequately. But breakfast, lunch and dinner rushes are simply part of the rhythm of the restaurant business.

Even a reservation system doesn't cure this problem completely. Consider early arrivals, late arrivals, parties that show up with more or fewer than reserved, parties in a rush, and the host of other variables that are part of the mix.

And let's not forget that employee turnover is high in this business. Sometimes employees quit without bothering to inform anyone. They just stop showing up, leaving you with a hole in your schedule, scrambling for a patch. Absenteeism is another big problem for restaurant operators.

Appreciated "intellectual capital." The combined experience, skill and knowledge of your staff create your business's "intellectual capital." While you won't find this on a balance sheet, it's an asset nonetheless. Cross-training is a way for that knowledge to be shared; if you lose an employee, particularly a longtime employee, his knowledge doesn't walk out the door with him.

Improved individual efficiency. To teach his job to someone else, the individual who is cross-training another staff member has to think about something he might have been doing by rote and instinct for years. Now he has to analyze and systematize his job, which is what he may normally do by rote. Consequently, he ends up with a greater knowledge of his own job. Additionally, the trainee casts a fresh pair of eyes and can help the trainer pick out those parts that don't make sense, or that might be changed or improved.

Increased standardization. Every restaurant has (or at least should have) policies and standards for everything from how duties are performed, to how staff should be groomed, to consistency in the preparation of menu items. But when we talk about consistency, we usually focus on the product that comes out of the kitchen. Don't forget that the consistency of the "product" that guests receive from the front of the house staff, is every bit as important. Cross-training gives the opportunity to ensure that all staff members are reading from the same hymnal, so to speak.

The restaurant business tends to attract creative people. Some express their creativity with original and inventive dishes, some with a special flair in the dining room. And one of the great things about our business is that we are not automatons mindlessly stamping out widgets. But originality and creativity have to be limited in some ways. Consistency and standardization are absolutely crucial to any restaurant operation, both in the back of the house and in the front of the house. No guest wants a dish prepared differently on alternate visits. For the guest, consistency is very near the top of the priorities list. For the independent restaurant or small chain, cross-training the various stations on the kitchen line is the only way to ensure consistency. This way, for instance on Sundays and Mondays, when the regular sauté cook is off, the grill or fry station or pantry cook who fills that station will put out the same product that the guest has come to expect. Consistency in service is just as important as consistency in food preparation. The hostess filling in on the floor for a sick server should know the sequence of service at the table just as she knows the process for taking reservations over the telephone.

Better teamwork and coordination. The change in perspective that cross-training gives staff members often makes for better relationships, both among co-workers, and among departments (e.g. front of the house and back of the house). The ability to see the process or organization from the point of view of co-workers, both within the same department and from a different department helps the cross-trainee appreciate that others have difficult and demanding tasks. They see explicitly how others' efforts contribute to the entire process; and they see that others' duties are just as demanding as their own.

Heightened morale. In the restaurant, as in many workplaces, there are parts of the job that can become repetitive. Tedium sets in and fosters boredom. Cross-training lets us break out of our workplace routines. We're learning and we're mastering new skills. Suddenly things start to feel more elastic. Your staff begins feeling a sense of increased competence. The result is increased motivation and improved morale.

Starting a Cross-Training Program

Starting a successful cross-training program is not just a matter of switching a few employees around for a few shifts. To be effective, a cross-training program has to be carefully planned before it is carried out.

Develop a reasonable timeline. Don't try to rush through the process. Set reasonable goals for completion of the program. Decide how much time you're willing to allot to cross-training each employee and who will be responsible for the training, and when they will conduct training.

Determine costs. Time is money, and when you're talking about paying staff to train, it can add up to big money. Look at your budget, and decide how much you're willing to invest in the process. Then estimate the additional labor costs to cross-train each key function. You might find that you want to focus on certain areas first, rather than starting a sweeping cross-training program.

Create a training schedule. Train during periods that are not too busy. For many restaurants this rules out weekend nights and weekday lunches, times when business is high or guests are on a schedule. During these periods, your cross-trainer does not have time to adequately explain to and teach his trainee. In this situation, everyone -- and I mean everyone -- gets shortchanged. Plan training when you can anticipate enough time for the trainer to demonstrate skills and provide adequate explanation.

Communicate with the staff. Tell your staff why the program is beneficial and necessary. Getting the staff to "buy into" the program is possibly the most crucial factor determining success or failure. If staff members feel like their cross-training duties are an imposition or punishment, they'll feel exploited and resentful. Present these duties as a learning opportunity and career booster. Bring staff into the process by getting their input when identifying the range and scope of duties to be cross-trained. Find out what they think would be useful, both personally and to the organization. Give them a say in who will participate. Encourage input and ask for feedback. You can do it over a number of days via the daily lineup. With a larger staff it might be more effective to hold a meeting expressly for discussing and "selling" the idea.

Choose your cross-trainers and trainees carefully. Don't automatically assume that your strongest employees in each department should be the participants. Just because someone is a strong server does not mean he or she would make a good trainer. (For more information, see "A Great Coach Isn't Always the Best Player,") A server can be really proficient, yet be unable or unwilling to teach those skills to another. Conversely, some employees may not be interested in being cross-trained, so don't waste time and effort trying to force them. Instead, choose another candidate.

Make evaluation a fundamental and critical part of the process. Don't just passively accept the feedback that may or may not be offered. Encourage input; request observations and assessments; welcome suggestions and constructive criticisms. Conduct an open dialogue about what has been learned. Again, lineup is a good time to do this.

Have participants report to the whole staff what they have observed and learned. Have participants prepare a presentation of their observations to be delivered at a staff meeting. Encourage discussion of aspects participants found surprising or difficult about others' duties. Everyone likes the validation of hearing that the work he does is challenging and is valuable to the organization. This is a good time for reinforcing the team-building aspect of cross-training. Staff unity and improved morale result when team members have the chance to acknowledge one another's contributions and, in turn, to have their own contributions acknowledged.

Cross-Training Can Turn Showtime into Showoff Time

Cross-training your staff is no easy task. Like preparing for a triathlon, it takes time, commitment, patience and money. It's a workout for you as well as your staff. There may be some aches and pains along the way. You'll no doubt have to provide encouragement and guidance from the sidelines. But the benefits are worth it: an agile and limber staff with a more positive attitude and a greater sense of camaraderie; a workplace where team members can stretch out their strides and perform at top levels. In the end, it translates to a more efficient operation, more satisfied guests, and a healthy bottom line.

-- Restaurant Startup & Growth


Cross-Training Do's and Don'ts

Do's  . . .

  • Be clear to the staff why and how the program will be run.
     
  • Present it as a learning opportunity, job enrichment, and something that will benefit everyone.
     
  • Be clear about objectives. When training front-of-house employees for back-of-house positions, or vice versa, be clear that the objective is to improve flexibility, communication, morale and interdepartmental relations. Make sure they understand that you are going to apply common sense; for example, you're not going to ask a server or hostess to work the broiler station in a pinch. Likewise, you're not going to pull your prized sauté chef from his station to seat guests, either. The point is to make the server realize that it's important that people can fill in for others in an emergency. It is also important that server staff understand that kitchen work is tough physically, and the temperature behind the front line is blistering. On the other hand, you want the kitchen personnel to see beyond the plates they put out. You want them to see that there are real, live, hungry (and not always patient), people waiting for each of those plates.
     
  • Emphasize that when job shifting occurs, everyone needs to pitch in. The purpose is not to shift the entire burden to one person.
     
  • Be aware that you may be asking someone to sacrifice wages/tips. If this is the case, compensate them.

Don'ts . . .

  • Implement the program in starts and fits.
     
  • Cross-train during very busy or very slow periods.
     
  • Enlist participants who resist the process.
     
  • Give trainers the impression that cross-training is an opportunity to coast and let someone else do their work for a couple of nights.
     
  • Allow participants to mock or dismiss the process. The rest of the staff will only take it as seriously as they do, and they will take it as seriously as you do.




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