Growing as a leader in the saw shop

Josh Penner
March 29, 2018
By Josh Penner
March 29, 2018 - Call me biased, but I think out of all the variables and factors within a sawmill, those within the saw filing shop can make the most difference between a successful mill and one that struggles to keep up with its peers. Within the saw shop there is the issue of the saw filing team itself. Is the team progressive? Adaptable to change? Constructive? Part of the solution?

It seems to me the saw trade has a very high turn over rate compared to the other departments in a sawmill. The trade is a very demanding, detail oriented, and has a repetitive grind that can wear a person very thin after the umpteenth saw change. Saws are unfortunately at the mercy of many factors (machine upkeep, wood quality, operators, etc.), but they are the easiest variable in any problem to “swap out” in an effort to cross something off the list of potential factors. And because none of us are perfect, once in a while changing the saws fixes what ails ye. But if it’s not the saws, it’s the people; and the people are shaped by their leaders.

It is incredibly important that a saw filing department have a shared commitment to quality, understanding and efficiency. All members of the team need to know they have value. They all need to be able to trust each other to a certain degree, and they all need to feel that their supervisor will stand up for them when the occasion arises. How do you establish value? Make sure they see the production numbers, grade out turn, and so on, relative to the saws they work on. Trust is certainly not something that can be gained at the snap on one’s fingers, but instead it is built over time. Trust is best built when there is an environment in which employees know that mistakes are bound to happen, and as long as they learn and try their best not to make the same mistakes, there won’t be major consequences. Lastly, the saw filing team should feel supported. They should be confident when there is a conflict their leader will stand up for them, and that ideas put forward are credit-shared as a team.

When I was first starting to hammer round saws, I recall timidly showing my handiwork to the senior round saw benchman. He looked at it, hummed and hawed before finally declaring, “Yeah, that’ll run.” Was it perfect? No. Could he have said, “Keep going ’till it’s perfect, rookie”? Sure. But he recognized that, while not perfect, it wouldn’t be the smoking gun if there was a saw change. It would cut well enough to make the shift. I knew it could be tweaked by more time and experience, but it felt good to know that I was at least on the right path. Recognizing when to build people up or point out their mistakes is vital to excellent leadership. Maybe a team member is having a rough day, or a rough week. We have all been there. Manipulation doesn’t always have to have the negative connotation often associated with it. It can be used in a positive way as well.

Recognizing different personality types and their strengths and weaknesses is something that I am still learning as a head filer. We all have something different to offer, often in our own unique way, that will help achieve a common objective. Some people adapt to change quickly; others need time to adjust. Some people need frequent encouragement and coaching; others hardly need reminding. Allowing employees to play to their strengths is key. Only in the last year have I honestly accepted that I cannot do it all; that I need to release control and allow people to grow. I recognize there are situations that require firm guidance, and others in which my interference does not help at all.

If the company you work for offers any sort of leadership courses, I strongly encourage you to ask to take them. Being a leader is not for the faint of heart, and at times can feel quite thankless. But there is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction watching people you helped mentor succeed and exceed expectations!


Josh Penner is the head filer for Chetwynd West Fraser in British Columbia and a graduate of the Thompson Rivers University saw trades program in Williams Lake, B.C.

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