Why is Job Rotation Important for QRM?

Dr. Charlene Yauch
Professor Charlene Yauch

May 2020

Cross-training is a core element of Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) cells in both production and office areas. To provide flexibility as product mix changes and to keep processes moving, it is necessary to have employees that can perform a range of tasks. When deciding where to focus your cross-training efforts, key factors for you to consider include:

  • Where are the bottlenecks in the flow?
  • Which tasks have a lot of waiting time (“white space”) in front of them?
  • Which activities can currently only be done by only one specialized resource?

Once employees are cross-trained, it is important to maintain those additional skills with regular practice, which means that periodic job rotation is needed. This article highlights four of the critical decisions that should be made relative to cross-training and job rotation.

Who participates?

The first important decision is whether all cell employees will be expected to participate in cross-training and job rotation. If cell employees had volunteered to work in the cell, then they may all be anxious and excited to learn new things. However, if some employees were directed to be in the cell, one or more people may resist the cross-training expectation. You need to decide whether there will be any exceptions. Not allowing exceptions can promote a culture of fairness within the organization. But, there may be valid reasons for not requiring all of the employees in the cell to cross-train and rotate. One possible reason for an exception is if a particular employee has a physical or cognitive disability that prevents him or her from learning or performing a wider range of jobs. This type of exception is not likely to disgruntle other employees if the reason for differential treatment is apparent.

How to deal with resistance?

Some individuals may be reluctant to cross-train and rotate between jobs.  In past research that I conducted on job rotation, I found that about 15% of employees preferred not to cross-train and rotate. Although not a high percentage, the problem arises often enough that a plan should be considered for how to address it.  Resistance can come about for many possible reasons, such as loss of status/reputation, fear of reprisal if learning is slow or performance is sub-standard, fear of the unknown, fear of job loss if others obtain skills that were previously restricted to an individual or small group, or just avoiding a situation that is outside the employee’s comfort zone.  To counteract resistance, provide reassurance that the individual’s job is safe. Consider using incentives (addressed in Section 3 below).  Train supervisors and managers to reward the attainment of new knowledge.  Eliminate the use of efficiency metrics, which put pressure on workers to perform tasks at greater speeds.  Plan what to do when mistakes occur.  How will workers learn from their mistakes?  How will supervisors avoid punishing those who are trying to learn?  Finally, if the resistance is coming from a specialized resource, you may need to shift the individual’s self-identity towards that of a master who educates others rather than the sole expert conducting the task.

Will there be incentives?

Many companies choose to offer skill-based pay or other incentives to motivate employees to learn a broader range of skills. If you know more skills, you become more valuable to the organization and accordingly, earn higher compensation. An incentive or pay structure such as this helps to alleviate feelings of unfairness if there are exceptions to the cross-training expectation as described in Section 1 or just differing levels of participation between employees. The subject of incentives was addressed in a previous QRM blog about WIIFM (What’s in it for me?), which provides advice for managers on the use of extrinisic motivators (https://qrm.engr.wisc.edu/qrm-from-an-employees-perspective-or-wiifm/).

How frequent is the rotation?

Periodic rotation of employees between jobs helps them to retain their skills and remember how various tasks are performed. The rotation scheme can be formal where employees are expected to rotate based on an established time interval or informal where rotation only occurs “as needed.” The risk of an informal system is that if the need for rotation does not arise often, people may have a hard time refreshing themselves on how to do a job that they have not done in quite a while. This can be exacerbated by people’s tendencies to do work that is within their comfort zone. If a formal rotation system is used, the frequency of rotation should be considered. Will people rotate daily, weekly or monthly? Will they perform a core function and then spend 10% of their time doing other tasks during the week? Will the expectation of rotation frequency be the same for everyone? In either case (formal or informal rotation), creating a report – or better still, a clearly visible display board – that documents when each employee last did a particular type of task helps support the job rotation and provides metrics for cell teams and managers to monitor.

As with all human endeavors, there aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to the questions above. The answers partially depend on the company’s values and culture and existing policies/practices. What is crucial is that incentives and job rotation are discussed and thoughtfully planned early in the cell implementation process so that the organization can achieve the maximum benefit from its cross-training efforts.