5 Things Sawmills Taught Me About Continuous Improvement

By Richard Eaton posted 28 days ago



“I envy the woodcutter because, at the end of the day, he can see the results of his labours’ – Albert Einstein 

I got started in the management consulting business working in sawmills and, over the course of many months, learned an enormous amount about the principles of improving business performance at the, literally, sharp end. As you may know Sawmills are, essentially, gigantic machines designed to efficiently turn ‘round logs into square logs’ as one Sawmiller I worked with once so eloquently observed. Hundreds of people work with complex machines minute by minute during thousands of daily transactions and, at any one time, lots of things could go wrong, or right, depending on decisions made by anyone along the line. The effective management of business performance in sawmills is, therefore, of critical importance to the success or failure of the entire operation. 

Here are five things Sawmills taught me about Continuous Improvement: 

1. Targets Must be Clearly Understood by Everyone 

Five hundred thousand board feet per day. That was the daily production target at one of the mills I worked in. You may ask: ‘How much is a ‘board foot?’ The answer might be: ‘500 board feet is about the size of your average telephone pole’. Not that anyone would want to, of course, but 1000 telephone poles could easily bury a considerable portion of the BC Legislature buildings in Victoria. That represents a lot of volume in anyone’s books. Enough, in fact, to influence prices on international markets….from one mill. It also represents a huge opportunity for adding, or detracting from, value, quality and production levels for the final product. As a result, it is really important to have clear targets that are understood by everyone because targets drive collective behaviours, and even the smallest changes in behavior can have vast impacts, positive or otherwise, across a massive spectrum of stakeholders.

2. Use a Hands-On Approach to Managing Performance Indicators 

A sawmill is basically a big machine, consisting of hundreds of thousands of moving parts run by hundreds of people 24/7, 365 days per year, more or less. A high degree of automation is a key feature of many parts of this machine but, computerization notwithstanding, many of the operations in a Sawmill are still run by people. With their hands. From the log yard to the primary breakdown section to the green wood stacker to the kilns to the planer to the shipping department, dozens of people work hard every minute of every shift to do a good job in a ‘full immersion’ workplace. When things are going well, the wood is flowing and everyone is happy. When things are not going well they ‘fight the mill’, as they say, literally climbing into and around the machinery pulling, turning, fixing, replacing and sweating to get the line back in operation. 

You know, probably kind of like the place you work. 

Performance Indicators handed down from the corporate office have limited relevance to someone sweating away in the log yard. So, if you want to continuously improve in a full immersion workplace, you must engage with people from all levels in the organization to make sure that improvement plans are conceived, measured, reported and acted on in the right place, at the right time, in the right way and, most importantly, by the right people.

3. Manage the Things you can Control

In most Sawmills it’s really easy to measure just about everything. This is both a good, and a bad, thing. On the bad side of the equation, with thousands of transactions occurring minute by minute, it’s easy to get lost in the details. I have seen performance reports that ran to several pages of detailed data largely because someone, usually the boss, wanted to see a regular report on yet another micro-aspect of mill operations. At first glance, this vast collection of numbers looks impressive and very important. On closer inspection, however, most numbers in reports like this turn out to be quite useless to those who need to act on them to improve some aspect of mill performance. During one project, a key principle we adopted from the get go was to focus on measuring and improving the things we could control. For example, although religiously reported in mill reports the world over, it is not possible to control the volume of milled lumber produced by the mill. Volume is a feature of big logs and, for various good reasons related to the workings of Mother Nature, not all logs are big logs. However, it is possible to control other critically important variables related to Sawmill performance such as log quality. No surprise: smashed up or poorly sorted logs don’t process efficiently. Therefore, in contrast to output volume, Sawmill staff were able to take effective actions to increase the quality of the mill’s ‘log diet’ to ensure continuously improving performance over a fairly short period of time.

4. Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough 

As you can imagine, engineers, statistical process control experts and heavy machine technicians – and any Sawmill is full of people like that - can be pretty focused on making sure that everything is perfect before they try something new. To overcome this natural reticence we implemented a series of ‘controlled experiments’ to ground truth various improvements, then measured, reported and improved on them in a continuous fashion. Starting with simple measurement tools, like hand drawn wall charts, we eventually evolved into a more formal online reporting regime over time. The secret to success here is to roll out the new model with ‘square wheels’ as soon as you can, and then round them off as you go based on experience and trusted data.

5. Show your Work 

The power of visual learning is enourmous, and sadly underrated in many workplaces today. To leverage the power of visual learning and transmit it to a team environment we helped implement a series of simple, hand drawn charts, generated by machine centre staff based on the optimum performance levels defined for their areas. Throughout the day, at each break, shift staff would quickly review these visual displays, a process not unlike a team of doctors checking the charts at the feet of a series of hospital beds. They then made decisions about changes for the next quarter shift. Over time, as the shorter term problems disappeared, teams started working on more complex issues using a similar approach and prompting problem solving activity amongst more and more staff, all spurred on by small groups of people gazing up at some simple charts tacked on the wall and wondering aloud ‘How can we get an extra 20%?’. 

And when you see that kind of stuff happening, you know that a culture of Continuous Improvement has been born.


About the Author

Richard Eaton is a co-founder of Berlineaton a management consulting firm that specializes in continuous improvement, strategy & execution, and leader development. If you are interested in finding out how your organization can improve its effectiveness, please contact Richard at 250-472-3767, reaton@berlineaton.com or visit www.berlineaton.com/practice-areas/continuous-improvement 

This article was first posted here