Or CLICK to download a pdf of this article
Sharpening sawfiling skills
An innovative Sawfiling Peer Group at Tolko Industries is helping to bridge the gap between sawfilers, mill management and company divisions.
By Trevor Shpeley
For as long as there have been sawmills, there has been an insatiable demand for skilled sawfilers. But learning the trade could take many years and knowledge was then, as now, passed carefully from master to apprentice. A benchman’s secret techniques, however, were often jealously guarded, not just from the mill owners who employed them but also from other journeymen sawfilers who might seek to usurp their position at a time when jobs were hard to come by.
A filer’s ability to earn an income depended upon his ability to turn ordinary steel into saws which would cut predictably and reliably under demanding conditions, and by the relative rarity of that talent. These early pioneers were referred to as “Saw Doctors” and their secretiveness was tolerated as an accepted byproduct of the profession.
The lumber industry has come a long way since those early days when it was every man for himself. But tattered remnants of attitudes gone-by can still be found in a residual reluctance to share knowledge and techniques from mill to mill and from region to region. The flow of communication between sawfilers and management has historically been tenuous at best and the challenges of a new piece of equipment or changing conditions are often met and conquered individually, despite the fact that there may be many mills operated by the same employer and that the same problems may have already been solved several times over by filers at different locations.
It is also not unusual for mill managers to have difficulty understanding the motivations and requirements of their own filing departments, due to the specialized nature of the trade and the difficulties in communication between the two groups who, although they share common goals, sometimes lack a common language with which to discuss them.
Tolko Industries, headquartered in Vernon, B.C. with eight lumber divisions in B.C. and Alberta, has a long history of gathering management and hourly employees for “Best Practices” brainstorming sessions with the goal of creating innovative ideas and sharing them with the entire company. It was at one of these sessions in 2007 that the idea of forming “peer groups” among the various trades was first proposed. Unlike many other ideas that sound great around the boardroom table but are stillborn on the mill floor, the new program was enthusiastically received by mangers and tradesmen alike and immediately put into practice company-wide.
Kelowna Division Site Manager Greg Maralia was present when the peer
The Tolko Sawfilers Peer Group (TSPG) meets by teleconference once per month and in person at a different division every year. Attendees usually include Greg Maralia as a representative of Tolko upper-management and all of the company’s head filers. As well, organizations such as FPInnovations and suppliers to the sawfiling trade are asked to speak at these workshops. Benchmen and circular saw filers are included as often as possible to encourage new ideas and increase engagement by employees at all levels of the filing room. Current operational issues and experiences with new techniques are discussed and similar procedures between the various mills are compared in order to arrive at the best solutions for shared problems. The head filers also relay information about products they have purchased and experimented with, as well as challenges faced by changing conditions, such as the mountain pine beetle. Mill tours are always a part of the yearly conference and have become a valuable take-away for participants who bring ideas gleaned from the unfamiliar mills back to their division for possible incorporation into their own filing rooms.
As someone who is responsible for ensuring that the books balance at his operation, Maralia knows all too well that peer group conferences of this kind do not come cheap, considering that employees travel from all over B.C. and Alberta to attend. But he is quick to say that he sees the cost of the program to be inexpensive when compared to the proven return on investment of an energized and involved workforce.
In addition to sharing practical innovations like a safer lifting hook for moving large heavy trimsaws, developing a defined quality control program and software for tracking saw performance, peer group members attend educational seminars on subjects such as machine-centre alignment, advances in saw materials and carbide tip design. The twin problems of an aging sawfiler population and the shortage of apprentices in the trade have been addressed and the debate is ongoing. Safety is always high on the agenda with accidents and near-misses discussed, and solutions to hazards proposed. Many safety initiatives and positive procedural changes have evolved from the TSPG program.
In 2009, BCIT, the institution responsible for running the in-school portion of sawfiler training, announced that it would no longer be providing instruction to apprentice sawfilers. The trade itself was in immediate peril as without formal institutionalized instruction, the saw trades were in danger of losing their accreditation. In 2010, the Resource Training Organization (RTO) recognized the impending crisis and sent letters to all the solid wood companies in B.C. requesting input and expressions of interest towards the formation of a new sawfiling school. The TSPG answered the call immediately and in fact, ended up forming 80 per cent of the consulting group that eventually, in conjunction with RTO, developed a curriculum for the new school and in the process, changed the face of B.C. saw-trades.
Tolko management remains solidly committed to its peer program, especially now due to demands placed upon the industry by its long climb out of the recession and the need to attract and retain the best sawfilers available. Regular meetings are still enthusiastically attended and day-to-day e-mail communication between members is flourishing. As an experiment in progressive trades-relations, the Sawfiling Peer Group has become an outstanding success and one that shows every promise of a long and productive tenure with Tolko Industries.
Trevor Shpeley is a posted benchman at the Tolko sawmill in Kelowna, B.C. and currently serves on the executive of the BC Sawfilers Association.
This page and all contents ©1996-2015 Logging and Sawmilling Journal (L&S J) and TimberWest Journal.