The Efficiency-Quality Tradeoff of Cross-Trained Workers
Posted: 12 Jan 1999
Date Written: 1998
Does cross-training workers allow a firm to achieve economies of scale when there is variability in the content of work, or does it create a workforce that performs many tasks with constant mediocrity? To address this question we integrate a model of a stochastic service system with models for tenure and experience-based service quality. When examined in isolation, the service system model confirms a well-known "rule of thumb" from the queuing literature: flexible or cross-trained servers provide more throughput with fewer workers than specialized servers. However, in the integrated model these economies of scale are tempered by a loss in quality. Given multiple tasks, flexible workers may not gain sufficient experience to provide high-quality service to any one customer, and what is gained in efficiency is lost in quality. Through a series of numerical experiments we find that low utilization in an all-specialist system can also reduce quality, and therefore the optimal staff mix is a mixture of flexible and specialized workers. We also investigate when the performance of the system is sensitive to the staffing configuration choice. For small systems with high learning rates, the optimal staff mix provides significant benefits over either extreme case (a completely specialized or completely flexible workforce). If the rate of learning is slow and the system is small, flexible servers are preferred. For large systems with high learning rates, the model leans toward specialized servers. Finally, we demonstrate that the model provides managers with a tool for evaluating the performance effect of human resource initiatives that may have an impact on worker turnover and training.
JEL Classification: J23
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation