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Productivity in the Forest Products Industry: Innovative Practices Used by Forward Looking Companies
Industry leaders discuss keys to managing their time and boosting productivity in the office as well as the plant floor. From technology to customer shortcuts, learn what works and what doesn’t.
By DeAnna Stephens
Date Posted: 5/1/2010
Increasing productivity in a pallet company is about more than faster production on the plant floor. It requires looking at all aspects of your business. Don’t limit yourself to thinking that the only place to become more efficient is in production. There are many areas that could benefit from increased productivity, but are often overlooked.
Technology: Just a Nuisance or Your New Best Friend?
Many pallet companies have found that using the right technology in the right way can greatly boost their productivity. The purpose of most technology advancements is to make life easier for the user. Companies that know this and use it to their advantage are able to save time, increase customer contacts and stay more organized.
Technology is a big factor in the daily schedule of top management at many forward looking companies.
“I am helpless without my iPhone and my laptop is a strong second,” said Howe Wallace, CEO of PalletOne, which has 17 locations spread across 11 states and 1,200 employees.
Not all technology is one-size-fits-all. It is important to find what works for you. Would sending an e-mail in place of making a phone call save you time? If you just need to pass along information or ask a quick question and don’t need to discuss the topic, e-mail may be the most efficient way of doing so. E-mail also has the added benefit of built-in documentation of communication. If you find that you often need to call someone back to confirm information you previously discussed, or are often in situations where you cannot take notes, using e-mail would enable you to have all that information available in one place for quick reference. And remember, e-mail no longer has to be limited to when you are in the office; it can be just as mobile as your cell phone.
“My preferred method of communication is e-mail,” said Kerry Anderson, president of Anderson Forest Products, which has locations in Kentucky, Nebraska as well as Mexico. “I carry a Blackberry so I can keep my e-mails up to date.”
Having your e-mail at finger tip all day allows you to respond quickly to e-mails from customers, vendors and employees. And quick responses help them all feel like you are reliable and that they are important to you.
Companies with multiple locations should also consider reducing the number of in-person meetings and replacing them with conference calls. Eliminating the time lost in travel, as well as travel expenses, could add up to a sizable amount of savings.
“We have curtailed a good bit of face-to-face meeting to save money,” Howe said. “We probably could do more, but we have a rigorous monthly financial analysis. I read weekly reports from each plant manager and when something on the report provokes thought or action, I get on the phone.”
Technology does not have to be limited to basic communication either. The growth of social media has made it a viable business tool, especially in marketing. But before you spend hours updating your Facebook page, remember that understanding how your customer base communicates should also play a large role in how you try to reach them. The Collins Companies, a group of five hardwood & softwood sawmills, a composite siding plant and a particleboard mill, can sort their customer database to those who purchase their FSC certified line, and those who purchase from their non-certified lines. They have found that those who purchase FSC certified products are likely to use new technology and social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
“FSC customers tend to be more Internet savvy, and open to new ways of communicating,” said Lee Jimerson, Pacific Albus product manager for the Collins Companies.
Using Twitter or Facebook allows you to reach an unlimited number of people at once.
Lee often posts new information on FSC products on the company’s social media sites, rather than trying to call everyone from the database. He said he has found it to be much more efficient, and many of their customers check these sites for information.
In the middle of becoming more productive, don’t lose sight of the fact that some customers prefer a more personal touch. Make sure you balance customer expectations with your need to make the most of your time. Use technology as a tool, not an excuse to avoid people.
Calendars: Your Taskmaster or Your Servant?
It is important to be able to control your schedule and not be controlled by it. Doing this may require actually scheduling unscheduled time. Before you do this, take a look at your responsibilities and see how often you have to deal with something unexpected.
“While you like to know about problems or opportunities as soon as possible, they aren’t on a schedule,” Howe said. “They arrive to you on someone else’s schedule. Some are easily dispatched. Many are not. Thus, I find if I structure my day, I don’t have the time to give the issues that can arise my full attention.”
Don’t make the mistake of having absolutely no structure to your day. Even scheduling blocks of time to deal with issues related to certain areas may be helpful.
John Heller, president of H&S Forest Products, a pallet broker with multiple locations across the eastern United States, said roughly half of his time is unscheduled. Nevertheless, he does have a basic structure for his day that he works within. He has set times for dealing with voice mails and e-mails, reviewing accounts receivable and sales data, and talking with his sales personnel.
Industry Trends: Shows and Innovation
Staying up to date on equipment trends is crucial for many pallet companies. One of the best ways to do this is by attending trade shows. Trade shows occur year round all over the country. They are good opportunities to keep up on equipment trends, get inspired by new innovative ideas and find new contacts for equipment and other vendors you need.
“I attend at least one trade show each year to see what new equipment is available,” Kerry said.
Shows give you a lot of exposure to many ideas and vendors in a short amount of time. The biggest show for the pallet industry is, of course, EXPO Richmond, which is held every other year. But other shows are held in other parts of the country as well. The Pallet Enterprise keeps an updated list of all machinery and materials handling shows online at www.palletenterprise.com/calendar.asp.
Ideas can also come to you at all times of day in all kinds of ways. Having a way to remember and keep track of them is always a good idea. Try to have a way to make notes with you at all times. Howe has found that using a notes application on his iPhone works well. But other options include a smart phone, a tablet PC device, a paper notebook, or a voice recorder. Find the method that works best for you and use it.
Customers: Your Chief Concern
Every customer wants to feel like they are your number one customer. Going the extra mile to serve them can make all the difference between a former customer and a return customer. H&S Forest Products realizes this and makes sure that all customers are personally contacted by the president.
“All customers receive a letter from me, notifying them that I am available 24/7 if their salesperson cannot handle their request,” John said.
Providing extra services can also be helpful to customers and greatly appreciated. PalletOne does this by sponsoring occasional seminars for customers.
“We like the Unit Load concept developed by Mark White and have spent some time educating our customers to the concept,” Howe said.
Nothing can be more frustrating to a customer than a late response or a complete lack of response. Make responding to your customers a top priority, and they will understand that they are your priority. If following through on responding to customers is hard for you, find a way to keep track of them. At the Collins Companies, Lee uses Microsoft Outlook to schedule follow-up calls or e-mails to customers. This keeps him from having customers fall through the cracks when things get busy.
Employees: The Most Important Resource
Employees are arguably the most valuable asset a company has. As the face, voice and hands of your operation, they have the ability to make or break your business. Finding ways to utilize the skills and ideas of your employees that are currently going unused can increase not only company morale, but your bottom line.
“Empowering your employees can really make you more efficient,” Lee said. This is because it is the people on the plant floor that are usually the most capable of finding ways to improve efficiency, according to Lee.
The Collins Companies have made it a goal to push the decision making process down the line as far as possible. With around 1,000 employees at nine different mills, that is a lot of pushing. But the Collins Companies have found that using principles from The Natural Step approach is helpful in implementing this. The Natural Step is a comprehensive framework that helps organizations integrate sustainable development into their strategic planning. It provides training that helps all employees understand how what happens in their area affects the entire company.
“The idea is that anyone in the organization has the ability to make a positive impact,” Lee said.
By using The Natural Step as a management tool, Collins saves over $1 million a year, according to Lee. To help produce, keep track of and implement innovative new ideas, the Collins Companies created committees for different areas. The committees are comprised of employees from all areas, based on their interest. These committees make sure that ideas given by employees are not brushed aside or forgotten, and let the employees know that their ideas are valued. More information on The Natural Step can be found at www.naturalstepusa.org.
Remember that especially in larger companies, talking to the CEO can be intimidating for many employees. The downside of this is the amount of ideas and innovation that can be lost.
“It takes courage for an employee to march into the boss’s office and engage them; there has to be trust. Howe said. “So, I get out a good bit. I walk through. I hope familiarity will take some of the mystique out. And, when they do engage me, I stop what I am doing and listen. I try to talk less and ask more questions.”
Try to find ways to connect with your employees and earn their trust. Making a point of noticing the efforts of employees can go a long way in helping them be comfortable with upper level management.
“I started a practice a few years ago of writing my teammates a personal note each day,” Howe said. “The topics range from what I have read, to what I have seen, to promoting our culture. It goes to everyone on our team with access to email. We also print and post them in English and Spanish for our employees to see in break rooms. We celebrate successes. Thank folks for extraordinary efforts. Discuss frankly shortcomings. Describe our progress or lack of it. I am told the effort is well received and promotes a sense of team. I think it may be one of the most important things I do.”
Production: The Bottom Line
As important as employee input is, don’t forget that upper level management still needs to be involved in finding ways to improve productivity. Lee said Collins’ CEO, Eric Schooler, still makes a point of personally identifying, or being told what the bottlenecks in production are at each plant. Once the production area that slows things down is pinpointed, Eric works with the mill manager to find the best way to make the process more efficient in that area, Lee said.
At PalletOne, making sure everyone knows what their production goals are has been helpful.
“Everyone needs to know the numbers they are expected to generate,
Time management, communication, marketing, asset management and innovation all have room for improvement and can contribute greatly to the efficiency of a company. From making the most of your time to finding ways to smooth the production flow, increasing productivity can have a positive effect on your stress level and your bottom line.
Productivity is such an important issue in business that many publications have put a great deal of time and research into it. Here are a few of the top pointers that we came across in our research on productivity.
• Find the right staff. Having a team that is full of skilled and motivated individuals is critical. Make the time to find people whose abilities you can depend on.
• Don’t keep yourself separate from your employees. When you spend all your time in your office, away from the rest of your company, you lose the ability to keep in touch with the general morale of your company. Consider making a habit of keeping your office door open, of not having a separate office, or spending a lot of time among employees of all levels.
• Make a point of commending your workers. This is one of the most effective forms of employee motivation. It makes the employee realize that their effort contributes to the overall success of the company and encourages them to continue improving.
• Give yourself mental time limits. When beginning a new task, set an amount of time to work on it. Knowing you only have a limited amount of time to accomplish a task can help you stay focused on what you are doing until it is done.
• Have an assistant help organize issues for your attention. Being interrupted every time someone needs a question answered can keep you from accomplishing a lot. To avoid this, have your assistant collect a list of questions or people you need to respond to, organize it in order of importance and give it to you once a day.
• Know how to use technology. Find out which form of technology will save you the most time. If long phone calls eat up too much of your time, start sending e-mails instead.
• Recognize the value of good ideas. Good ideas don’t usually pop out of thin air. They have to be worked on. Make time to both brainstorm for new ideas and read up on what is happening in the industry. It may seem like wasted time, but it is well worth it.
• Use lunch time to deal with the issue of the day. Because problems are not usually scheduled, it can be hard to find time for them. Eat your lunch with the part of your team that is dealing with the most important issue or biggest problem of the day and use that time to give your input.
• Keep in shape. Research has long shown that people who stay in shape have more energy. Set a weekly exercise routine that you can stick to and see how it affects your energy level.