How Working in a Sawmill Prepped me for Business & Life Better than University: Part 1/3

My first full time job was at a sawmill in my small hometown. The goal was to work there and save money to go to business school. Little did I know the mill would teach me just as much about business and life as school would.


Starting out at most mills you’re given the shit jobs no one wants, typically graveyard clean-up. In my case, while its -35 degrees Celsius. Shovel this mountain of frozen saw dust, clean out that sludge, crawl into this 4 x 3 tunnel on your hands and knees and chip away at frozen mud. But there is something zen-like about spending 8 hours by yourself every night. Plenty of time to think and experiment. This is where I learned to appreciate systems.

Don’t Go Where You’ve Already Been

I’m a “path of least resistance” type of person. I think efficiency. If you can do something fast and easy, why do it slow and hard? I was given a section that consisted of various jobs and took 8 hours to finish. I spent the first week working my shift in different orders, using different tactics. I finished my 5th shift in 6 hours instead of 8 and on my 11th shift I finished in 3 hours. When I told my supervisor he came to inspect, assuming I cut corners, instead he was shocked to find my area was cleaner than it had ever been. “How?” he asked, if you do it in this order I said, there’s no redundancy or doubling back. My “discovery” led to a new worker being let go, who’s area I then cleaned after mine. Because of a system, I cleaned what was suppose to take 16 hours in only 6 and I was saving the mill $5,000/month. After this, I was coincidentally put in a section that struggled to keep up with operations.

Bag em’ Dano

The section that struggled was the final step. Where the lumber was stacked, bound, bagged, and tagged. The stacking and binding was done by a machine, which then rolled the stack out where a worker bagged it and put on a label to identify the lumber. Simple right? It was, but everyone made it so damn hard.

I’ll set it up for you. Every stack could be a different grade, width, length, and quality. The label was printed by the machine operator as the lumber was coming through, the bags were stacked on a massive wall behind you, there was a different bag for every size, quality, and width. We used high powered air staplers and pull tabs to staple the bags and tags on. One tag on the front right, one tag on the back left, pull tabs stapled on the bottom skirt of the bag.

Few baggers could keep up with the binding, and before I went there they had 3 guys in 2 days shoot staples through their fingers trying to keep up. I was partnered up with one guy who was suppose to train me, but after 25 minutes of watching him run around like a headless chicken and fall behind I stepped in and said “I have a suggestion.” He looked at me like I insulted his mom or something and told me to keep watching. When the coffee bell rang everyone left for 15 minutes but I stayed behind. I moved the stapler, cleaned off the work bench, lined up the pull tabs, set out extra staples to reload with, and started to study the bag wall.

When they came back I said I was gonna give it a shot. I grabbed the tags out of the printer as the stack rolled out, read them, then held onto them with my teeth. Went to the bag wall, grabbed the bag, unfolded the front on the stack and let the rest unfold itself as the stacked finished rolling through. With my now 2 free hands I grabbed my stapler and the pull tabs, pulled the bag tight, stapled the front, the front tag, down the side and back, the back tag, up the other side and finished off the front. The guys looked at me like I just discovered fire. After a week there I was faster than the binding machine. I told the supervisor “instead of everyone reacting to each new stack and rushing to finish it, then making mistakes or hurting themselves, set up one system they follow.” Train them do the exact same thing in the exact same order for every single stack that comes through. Its faster, safer, and soon it becomes a reflex. They don’t even need to think about it.

Systems All Day er’ Day

I had used systems all my life, but the mill was my “ah ha” moment when I realized its power. Now everything is a system. My morning routine is a system, my workout is a system, my drive to work is a system, my investment templates are systems, my office is set up like a system. So I was a little disappointed when I got to Uni and they started teaching us the basics of systems. I had one prof who took systems to a whole new level…that was worth while. But to begin with I thought “what the hell, I was getting paid to learn this and now I’m paying to learn it again.”

We learn valuable life lessons everyday, we just need to step back and recognize them.