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Bench Strength

By C. Scott Ellis

November 9, 2022


Do you feel like Moses? We are told the pharaoh demanded that his workforce increase production while disrupting their supply of materials, telling them to make more bricks and to gather their own straw supply. If you feel similarly maltreated by staffing challenges, supply chainand the rising cost of goods over the past few years, I have two suggestions.

First, with all due respect, get a grip because all those challenges came during a time of profitability for the packaging industry. Also, most boxmakers are better employers and manufacturers for having overcome those obstacles. The second suggestion is that you make a priority to deepen your company’s bench strength.

Employment numbers indicate that manufacturing will need to continue getting the work done with fewer workers. Our solutions, therefore, need to contain value for the workers we desire to attract and retain, while increasing our ability to meet customer demand with safe, fast, quality service. The solution is cross-training, but that is the answer you find in the back of the book. The more important part is how to get there, so as my algebra teacher required, I will show my work.

The first step is to take an inventory of the skill sets of the current staff. I will focus on machine centers and give an example below of the application to administrative areas. To get a baseline, gather production management to set your criteria for the levels of capability. Those levels could be labeled “No Training,” “Trainee,” “Assistant Operator,” “Operator,” and “Trainer.” A resource available for this purpose, Cross-Training, can be found on Packaging University. Establish objective criteria for the knowledge base and demonstration of ability to move from trainee to assistant and so on. Next, set a goal for the number of qualified people on each key machine center. Finally, your team should discuss possible motivations for an individual to be trained on multiple machines.

Production managers have found that many team members are motivated by an unspoken competition. When a training matrix is posted, operators of single machines will see that some co-workers are qualified on multiple processes, and some will find that motivation enough to cross-train. There is not a one-size-fits-all template for how this works in your company culture. Some companies pay for performance, meaning that when team members operate different machine centers, they clock in for pay at that machine’s rate. Other companies pay for knowledge, giving a pay differential as an operator qualifies on multiple processes.

In any case, qualifying as a trainer should receive the highest recognition. It would not be unusual for a multi-machine operator to question their placement as operator but not trainer. One such interaction was a catalyst for change in a “magician,” which is my term for a skilled operator who does not show their work. The operator scanned the chart and asked why they did not receive the highest rating, saying, “I can train.” The response they received was, “Yes, I am sure you can, but you don’t.” It was a turning point for this skilled operator who had previously thought there was job security in holding onto knowledge.

Once the criteria for the objective ranking of capability is set and the current bench strength is known, you will decide if the best fit for your culture would be publicly posting the information or for private use by supervisors for staffing (and human resources if pay is impacted).

For those who would like to take it further, the Training Tracking Tool, also on Packaging University, can be utilized to monitor the training of individuals, completion of courses, awareness of procedures, etc. One can also track by procedure, by department, or by company. This is an Excel-based resource for companies that do not have their own learning management system to plan and track up to 25 processes across as many as eight departments. It would be well suited for operator certification, as well as providing a training record ISO for state compliance.

The value of cross-training is most visible when production staffing is proficient and flexible. There is also a benefit in qualifying and tracking skill levels in maintenance. Consider that a potential customer might be won more easily if various types of sales were ranked and the appropriate expert were to attend certain sales calls. There will be considerably more comfort in covering for a fellow customer service representative if there is a proactive effort to share specific requirements, contacts, and the status of current orders. It may start with a strategy as simple as allowing a trainee to move through the levels of order complexity (e.g., repeat, repeat with change, new box order, new kit or display order). These tools have led most to create a separate track for preparation of supervisors and managers.

When cross-training is done well, we invest in team members to increase their capability, and their engagement increases accordingly. There is no busload of willing and capable employees being delivered, so we need to be more productive with fewer people. Most who receive a wage that corresponds with their value to the company, who receive training and encouragement to communicate, who are asked to participate in process improvement, and who are given clear requirements will rise to the occasion.


Scott Ellis, Ed.D., delivers training, coaching, and resources that develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. He recently published Dammit: Learning Judgment Through Experience. His books and process improvement resources are available at AICC members enjoy a 20% discount with code AICC21.