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Yes, Canadian Workers Can Export to Japan

It used to be that the Mayo Forest Products sawmill in Nanaimo, B C. was run like so many other companies; that is, workers put in time but they had no real attachment to or interest in their work. The result was predictable: less than sterling performance and a product that was no better than average. Consequently, when competition in the forest products industry became more severe, the company saw its future threatened.

When Mike Low became general manager of this sawmill three years ago, he sensed that unless the company became more successful in cutting costs and improving its product, it would be in serious trouble. Jointly owned by Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan and Canadian Pacific Forest Products Limited, the company was keen on improving its reputation in a flourishing Japanese market. But the Japanese are extremely demanding buyers. They want the kind of quality products that cannot be achieved with traditional labour-management relations. Low decided to hire a consulting firm that specialized in productivity improvement to help change the style of management at the mill. The consultants insisted that what was needed was not just some tinkering with a few procedures but a transformation of the way employees thought about their jobs.

Traditional management tells employees what to do, and that is that. In a sawmill this means that the skills of sawyers and other production people are not used to their maximum, and new equipment is not being utilized to get the best and the most economical product. Under the new style of management at the Mayo mill, employees are now invited to use their skills in solving problems and improving production. For example, Len Colibaba is a highly skilled sawyer with many years of experience who became an advisor to the management of another Canadian Pacific Forest Products mill when it ran into problems. Colibaba can hardly believe that he is now spending half his time advising management. He said: "It's a concept that is still unheard of in the rest of the industry. Many of our local union officers are becoming quite astute businessmen who understand that if this company doesn't make a profit, we aren't going to have a job."

Other employees are similarly challenged and have begun to do their work with much more interest and satisfaction. The result is evident in the increased quality of the products, so much so that the Mayo mill may become the first of its kind in Canada to be awarded the highly desirable Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) seal of approval. This would give the Nanaimo mill the same status in Japan as a Japanese sawmill, and its lumber would be accepted in Japan without the usual inspection on arrival. Said Reg Lauscher, the mill's head of the saw filing department whose skills are vital for the success of the mill, "In a tight market we will sell lumber while others are sitting on the dock."

It isn't that everyone is proclaiming the situation at the Mayo mill to be perfect. There are still grumblings of dissatisfaction, but even the local (IWA) union president says, "I've worked in three other mills and this one is far superior. Another mill here on the island just shut down for a month but we're still firing away. This mill has a great future." (Daniel Stoffinan, "A Cut Above," Report on Business, November 1990, pp. 98-106)

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Harry Antonides is the founding editor of Comment. ... read more »
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