Wood Business

Another nail in the sawmill coffin

March 31, 2017 - Everyone has good days and bad days. The other day was a bad one for me. No, I’m not ill, but I received some very bad news from a friend. He’s not ill either, but he told me there’s soon going to be a lot of upset people in local sawmill communities. There are rumours going around that a few mills may be closing. I don’t know where they’re located, but I know it will be unpleasant. The question we must always ask ourselves when faced with a failing business is, “Why?”

I can speculate all I want about the reasons behind a mill’s closure, but it comes down to one thing: economics. Yes, this term has been flying around for decades and has been used to justify a wide range of decisions, from closing a business to releasing employees. I use the term “releasing employees” after going through firing, terminating, send packing, and some other words. I figured “releasing” would have the least amount of emotional response, though delicate language cannot disguise the life-changing turmoil this causes for many families. But, the cause at the centre of all of this is still economics.

I must digress and tell you a story. We had a piece of equipment in my machine shop serviced about eight months ago. The machine had been working perfectly fine for several years, but just like the parts of your car, they require regular service and maintenance. The service technician noticed some sparking on one of the components . . . after he was poking around in it. Here the story turns unpleasant. 

The machine was immediately taken out of service for safety reasons. A necessary evil, but it’s not like I had a spare of this giant thing sitting around, ready and waiting to jump into the production line. My objective was to get this critical machine up and running again as quickly as possible.

Well, it did. But it took eight months. Let that sink in. Is that an acceptable timeframe for a vital piece of equipment to be out of service in your machine shop, or sawmill. Now this is when the story takes an even more dismal turn.

The service company wanted payment for the repair call that started this whole thing before they would send us back the fixed piece of equipment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my face quite the same shade of tomato. I couldn’t believe they wanted to be paid first, before they’d send our machine back. The nerve!

Now, remembering how upset I was about my equipment being out of service for eight months, I started to think about a sawmill in trouble. Some mills run poorly for years before they eventually shut down. Yes, years!

My own ordeal was only eight months by comparison, and it was completely unacceptable for my business. I can think of another word to describe it too. It’s eight letters, starts with B and ends with ULLSHIT.

I can’t imagine enduring a severe productivity issue, such as malfunctioning equipment, for years. Unfortunately, many sawmills regularly endure this for months or even years: a problem everyone can see and that is never properly dealt with.

There are many reasons those problems stick around in a sawmill, from just plain ignoring the problems, or because only minimal fixes are made in an effort to save a few dollars. Eventually, economics will catch up. When that happens, “Surprise!” the sawmill is shut down. The mills that close are the weak ones that can’t seem to ever conquer their problems. If you’re in the sawmill industry, you know the weak ones.

In my case of the broken machine, I was crushed that I had to wait eight months for it to be fixed. I felt like my business was in limbo while this was going on. Many sawmills are too weak to make it out of their limbo state, or have been in a downward spiral for so long, they reach a point where they can no longer stop it once they’re dealt a critical blow. 

I believe you can always turn a business around with the right solutions, and by doing everything in your power to prevent problems in the first place through maintenance, investment and innovation.

So next time you make a business decision, ask yourself if you’re really just putting another nail in your future economic coffin.

Udo Jahn is a general manager at Modern Engineering.

April 28, 2017  By Udo Jahn

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