Business Optimization Lessons in Wood Cutting

Published 8th September 2019

I went to my mother-in-law’s cabin this weekend to help her chop and move some wood. She had to take down a large tree recently that was about 3 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall. The tree was cut up into discs about a foot thick. Along with a few others, I spent eight hours moving discs, splitting them into pieces small enough to fit in my mother-in-law’s small fireplace, and stacking the wood in her woodshed. It was physical work, but not very mentally challenging, giving me time to do a lot of thinking about how wood cutting and business optimization share some common best practices.

Me with the operation in the back.  You can see the disc pile and some of the crew.  Optimizing our work would be critical for finishing in a day.

Some of that time was spent observing what others were doing what was working well, and what was causing problems. I also got to think about this related to the work I was doing as I went through the day. A few lessons came out of chopping wood that apply to optimize your business for better outcomes.

You must break things into smaller pieces

One of the things I thought about was how we repeatedly broke down pieces of the tree so that they were more manageable to get us to the result of a full woodshed. There’s no effective way to start cutting fireplace size pieces of wood off a full tree. Could you imagine climbing to the top of a 70-foot tree and trying to cut off one piece that would fit into the fireplace? And then repeating this process thousands of times to cut the tree down? You could probably do it if you were very determined and had the right safety equipment and days to waste but it would be terribly inefficient.

After the tree was cut down it was cut into pieces that were about a foot thick. This made discs that could be rolled more easily by a single person. We then used a hydraulic splitter to break the discs into smaller pieces. We continued splitting pieces until they were the right size for the fireplace.

You must break your business down into pieces too

if you’re trying to optimize your business for better outcomes you need to take the same approach. Think again of trying to cut out fireplace size pieces from the whole tree; it’s just not feasible. If you try and fix your whole business you will waste time, energy, money, and eventually give up because you’re overwhelmed and have had little to no success in making improvements. By breaking your business into smaller pieces you make things much easier to handle. You can then improve your business one piece at a time optimizing each piece for better outcomes.

Also, just as in splitting wood, it’s important to focus on one piece at a time until you’ve finished what you set out to improve. We started the day cutting wood with about 50 of these discs most of which were 2 to 3 feet in diameter. Imagine starting to split one piece and before finishing splitting that peace into fireplace size chunks, bringing in another disk and starting to split that one. If this were to happen a few times there would be pieces unfinished all over the place and it would be very difficult to move around and split any more wood. Our progress of getting firewood in the shed would come to a halt as we drowned in half-done work and pieces of wood all over the place.

Adam on the wood splitter.  Optimizing work space around the splitter is similar to business optimization.

Improving your business is no different. If you are constantly moving from one thing to the next and never getting a task done to completion you are not bringing value to your business and creating a bunch of hazards that will continue to get in the way of your progress. It’s better to take one piece of your business, identify an improvement that you can make to that piece, and see that improvement through to the end before trying to optimize another piece.

This isn’t to say that you have to improve one area of your business until it’s perfect. You don’t want to spend months and months optimizing your traffic generation activity at the expense of neglecting the rest of your business. If traffic generation is your biggest problem identify one or two things you can do to improve your traffic generation. Then assess which area of your business needs the most help. If, after making a few changes, traffic generation is still your biggest problem, then pick another one or two things you can do to improve traffic generation further. If traffic generation is no longer your biggest issue, then shift over to what is. You can always come back to traffic generation when it becomes the least effective activity in your business.

Keep your work area clean

a very related but slightly different view on how splitting the wood is similar to optimizing your business has to do with keeping your work area clean. When I say keeping your work area clean there are two equally important ways to look at it.

First, the physical area that you work in should be organized and clean enough for you to be able to find what you need when you need it. This takes on a much bigger meaning if you are working with physical products but still has application even if your products are all digital.

As we were splitting the wood with the hydraulic splitter it was occasionally necessary to use an ax to finish splitting a piece. This would slow down the operation but it was made even slower when the person splitting couldn’t find the ax. Sometimes the axe got covered by a disk. Other times the axe was buried under bark. We also had a rake that would get lost or buried which made it difficult to clean around the splitter. Designating a place for these tools and making sure they always got back to their place reduced our downtime and allowed us to do more in less time.

Your work area should be no different. Even if you have only Digital Products, you still probably have some physical tools that help you in your job like your phone or a camera. This also applies to keeping the software on your computer organized so that you can quickly find and open the software tools you need to do your job.

The second way to think about this is that you need to maintain organization while you are working. When splitting the wood and starting with a big disc it was easy to get many pieces right around the splitter none of which were big enough to throw into the wheelbarrow as if finished fireplace sized piece. If these larger pieces were left right around the splitter it became difficult to maneuver the pieces into the splitter. It was important to organize these pieces in a way that did not interfere with the one piece that was being worked on.

Again this is no different than optimizing your business. If you are working to optimize how you develop products and you’ve identified four different ways to do that you need to keep those four different items organized in a way that they don’t trip you up or slow you down. Focus on one and work on it until it’s finished or until you have a valid reason that you are waiting. For example, if you’ve hired an outside individual to build you some new webpages and that’s going to take a week, it’s okay to move on to the next task, but don’t get yourself overwhelmed working on many tasks at the same time.

The mighty grasshopper

The last lesson I took from the day was related to a grasshopper. Shortly after leaving my house to drive to the cabin, I noticed a grasshopper sticking on my side mirror. I was already on the freeway at this point and wasn’t going to pull off to the side to get him off.

I watched this grasshopper throughout the drive. I figured he would fall off at some point as the 2 ½ hour drive from my house to the cabin is mostly freeway and I was driving speeds of 60 mph+ most of the way there.

It seemed as if this grasshopper was determined to make it to the cabin. I would see him shift places now and then and adjust how he was holding on and how he positioned his body. Through this trial and error, he was able to find the right spot that allowed him to hold on for the entire trip.

The grasshopper was happy when I pulled into the driveway.

A couple of things came to mind as I pulled into the driveway at the cabin. First, I doubted the grasshopper would make it almost the whole drive there. If I could have talked to the grasshopper I would’ve told him things like, “You’ll never make it” or “what you’re doing is ridiculous why don’t you just give up now?” I had no faith because from the outside the task seemed impossible.

The other thing I thought about is how the grasshopper continued to adjust what he was doing to be in the best spot. At times when I slowed down, he would move to a different spot or turn his body so the wind hit him differently. Through continuously adjusting what he was doing he was able to successfully hold on until I stop the car.

These two things are no different for you and your business. As you are making decisions, making changes, and trying to improve what it is you are doing, people will doubt you. People will tell you what you’re doing is crazy. People will figure that you’re going to fail. It’s important to push through what other people are telling you to get to the results that you know you can achieve.

Likewise, the process of optimizing for outcomes requires that you continually evaluate what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Your market will change. Your competitors will change. Your customers will change. A whole host of things will be constantly evolving including the technology used to deliver products and services. Blockbuster Video was a huge company but they didn’t pay attention to the change happening around them. The retail giant Sears was often used as case studies for business schools across America. Neither of these companies and many others like them didn’t pay attention to the change happening around them and didn’t make adjustments so that they be successful long-term.

Like the grasshopper, make some adjustments and then test your new results. If it’s still not where you want it, make another adjustment and then test your results. Continue to iterate through testing and monitoring how your results change to dial in what you’re doing to the outcomes you want to achieve.

You want to be careful about how you interpret that last two paragraphs. What you don’t want to do is be constantly jumping from one technology to the next or one idea to the next. You can overdo it by having too much change and not focusing on the right things at the right time. You also should have identified things in your market that won’t change over time and build as much as you can around those things that won’t change.

The finished cut wood totalled about 4 cords.

To Summarize

  • Don’t try and optimize your home business at once. Break it down into core activities and pick one.
  • Whether physical or digital keep your work area clean and organized so that you can find the tools that you need.
  • Focus on one thing until the improvement work you’re doing starts returning value.
  • Don’t let others discourage you with negativity.
  • Continue to test, monitor, and reevaluate.

Actions for you to take

  • Segment your business into the core activities you do to run your business
  • For more guidance on how to do this download our Output Optimization Framework
  • Clean and organize your physical and digital workspaces
  • Focus on positivity and don’t listen to the haters
  • Test, monitor, reevaluate

Additional Reading

Here are a few additional readings if you’d like to dive more into this subject.

Learn about “Microproductivity” (breaking big tasks down into little tasks).

Learn about the Lean principle of 5S.

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