Teaching an Employee to Optimize Materials

A problem with an employee who doesn't use up scrap leads to a long discussion on hiring, training, and firing procedures. May 20, 2009

Well, it happened again. My employee chose not to use any previous cuttoffs from past jobs and went straight to the pile of new lumber. Only to let me know that we ran short of materials. Of course he used all the new stuff to cut the small parts and the cutoffs we have that were intended for those parts won't work on the larger parts. This guy has over 10 years experience (he's been with me for 3). I've tried repeatedly to teach him to use cutoffs up first and then dig into the new stuff. Every time I try to explain this to him, he feeds me attitude. It's gotten a lot worse over the last year, and I'm perplexed as to how to get him to understand. I'm not the holler and scream type, so I try to just explain it in a conversational tone. Any tips on how to get him to understand? The guy is usually nice, and very reliable. It's just starting to get to me when I have an amount of wood that would work perfect that gets bypassed because he doesn't want to use it. Do I take the hard nosed approach and start busting his case?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor C:
This sounds like insubordination to me. No need for yelling and screaming. There is a more civil way of doing this. Write him up. Have a formal counseling session, put the problem, and solution, in writing. Have him sign it. Let him know that repeated (tell him how many) offenses will result in termination.

Oh, and you may need to know your state laws on firing employees. You want to be sure that you get it right so he cannot sue or collect unemployment insurance. A call to your attorney to check may cost a bit, but it is probably less expensive than all of the material he has wasted, and the cost of a suit or raising your unemployment rates.

From contributor S:
I agree - write him up. Not only for insubordination but also for wasting company resources (wood and labor), increasing production time and costs (additional material and labor, down time waiting for additional material), and creating unnecessary work for other people in the company (ordering and receiving additional material). Simply stated, his refusal to follow orders and use the material on hand properly, reduces profit.

When you write him up, attach an itemized cost of the infraction:
Additional material = $
Labor for ordering additional material = $

Labor to receive additional material = $
Production time lost = $
Management oversight = $
Total Loss = $$$$

This may sound harsh, but it will help you prove your case if you decide to terminate his employment.

From contributor P:
Why don't you sit down and talk with him and find out what his thinking is about this? If that doesn't work, fire him.

From contributor T:
Ditto the above, and if possible, remove his access to new lumber until he is cleared in writing to use the new by another supervisor. Get your checks and balances in place. If his laziness continues, you will have proof that he ignored required procedures. Let him go and move on to finding another employee who cares and gets it. No excuses allowed.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the replies. Right now, he's my only employee. You pointed out things that are obvious and I knew... I guess I just wanted some affirmation that I was heading in the right direction. I have a warning system in place, and that's the direction I was planning on going with. My handbook clearly states that 3 warnings for the same offense will result in immediate termination. Let's see, today's Wednesday, by next Tuesday he should be getting number 3. Hopefully one warning will be enough of a wakeup call.

From contributor G:
We try to separate useable materials from full size sheets. New employees will cut up full size plastic laminate, plywood and melamine for small parts. This costs us time and money. I decided to have one person cut all the materials. Fired the ones that repeatedly used full sizes sheets, after being warned twice.

From contributor A:
When we want to use existing stock or materials first, we put out a cutlist that optimizes the drop or states mill from existing stock. If you are giving him a drawing and he is creating the cutlist, then the drawing needs that info on it. Then you need to find out why he isn't doing what you ask. Some people can't take or remember verbal direction.

From contributor W:
You don't have to have multiple write-ups on the same infraction to let someone go. (If that were true, they could violate every rule in the book once, and still keep their job.) 1 verbal warning and 2 written warnings (can be on 3 different types of infractions), is all that is required for the law to be on your side. The next infraction is dismissal.

We don't define the fade period, but after awhile it makes sense for very old warnings to fade off their record. Contrary to what a lawyer will tell you, it is best not to put too much in writing because you will always be making judgments in grey areas that don't fit a formula, and you want to keep that freedom for yourself to make those calls. Ultimately, you want to be more fair than a formula response can provide, not less.

From contributor O:
Had the same problem with one guy. He is kind of the obsessive compulsive type, though. I finally convinced him to cut hardwood stock from longest to shortest. Panel stock largest to smallest. I make sure that my cutlists are uniform in how I specify dimension/grain direction. After two times, he was getting it down and not wasting anything... until he "optimized" and had a whole order of doors with some field panels running vertical and some horizontal. Still, longest to shortest - biggest to smallest reduced my drops and scrap.

From contributor N:
We have two employees who have been with us for 10 and 12 years. Their work is fine except for the odd time, but they would consistently make wrong choices when it comes to which materials, etc. After years of this, and me getting frustrated, I figured out something that works. Since I know which jobs are coming up next and I order the materials and provide the cut list, I am the one they come to when they are not sure. When I give them their job orders, I point out which materials they are to use for which job. If I think there is a remote possibility they might not understand, I have color coded post-it notes which have the PO# written on them and I stick them on the materials they should use. Some people honestly don't have the same thought process as others, and they think they are doing the right thing. They genuinely look shocked when you tell them for the 40th time to use the off cuts first. If he is your only employee, and otherwise his work is fine, maybe you don't want to lose him over choice of materials. Take that part away from him and maybe all will be right with the world.

From contributor J:
Sad situation, but a common one. Seems to be at my place, anyway. I had a guy with me about four years, pretty decent hand. He did a phenomenal job as long as you provided stick man drawings of the process we did every day for the last 4 years. Left to his own judgment and devices, he would mess up an anvil.

There's no room today for being slow on the uptake. I finally let him go when he cut two 23.75"x30.5" cabinet ends from 1 of two 4x10 sheets of A2 plain sliced red oak I had stored in the very top of my plywood rack with writing on the edge and ends "DO NOT CUT"! I had them set back for a 10' high refrigerator cabinet. The writing was still on the drop off!

He may never get it. He might if it hits him in the wallet. Regrettably it seems you have to remove every opportunity for mistake, and that means removing the opportunity for thought or judgment.

From contributor D:
If it's just the two of you, issuing a formal written reprimand will seem condescending and silly. Instead, treat the relationship as if you're his foreman. Be proactive before you assign him any task and communicate what you expect ahead of time. Rather than giving him a cutlist and leaving the decision up to him, remind him before he starts how you want the wood cut. This goes for each successive activity; take 30 seconds to communicate what you want, then let him do it. If he's doing these things because he has trouble remembering, then you're giving him a reminder only minutes prior to each task. Then if he disobeys, you know you've got no choice but to fire him.

From contributor L:
Print all these posts out and let him read them.

From contributor X:
Every company needs profits, and with them comes employee benefits such as bonus, pay raise, Christmas party, time off, working conditions. Explain this to your employees, ask how we can save on each job that we do to afford the benefits. Explain that if we don't save, the profit margin gets smaller and smaller till there is no longer a company. Ask for their help. Don't demand. Empower them for a change. If this fails, use other measures.

From contributor R:
Could it be your fault for not teaching: "plan your work... work your plan"? Regardless if it's a match for grain and color or not... Keeping in mind that woodworking philosophy is totally hands on.

From contributor S:
"If it's just the two of you, then issuing a formal written reprimand will seem condescending and silly."

I disagree. What is silly is not treating your company like a company. Written reprimands and written performance reviews clearly communicate how the company views the employee's performance. When you administer the written review/reprimand you should always indicate in writing what the employee needs to do to improve their performance. This leaves no gray areas and gives the employee a map for success.

The questioner says: "I've tried repeatedly to teach him to use cutoffs up first and then dig into the new stuff." You can not hold someone's hand every second. The employee is getting paid to do a job. Part of the job is to review the wood supply on hand before beginning the project and use the existing supply properly. If the employee doesn't know that he can't make a 3 foot long board cover 8 feet, then he is in the wrong job.

We hire employees to do a job so that we can do another job at the same time. This employee has been with this company for 3 years and supposedly has 7 more years experience on top of that. He has been told repeatedly to cut the small parts from the small boards and the large parts from the larger boards. If he hasn't gotten it by now, he isn't going to get it.

From contributor D:
I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Consistency in the way you communicate is important. If you're a cold, formal communicator on a daily basis, then I suppose a written reprimand would be appropriate. But if you communicate verbally, informally, casually, like I do, it would indeed be a silly and uncomfortable situation because it would be totally out of character.

I disagree, therefore, that not doing so means I'm not treating my company like a company. Everything you said about written reprimands, performance reviews, and maps for success can be handled verbally, informally, on a daily basis. If I see something I don't like, I tell them immediately rather than waiting for a quarterly performance review.

Neither one of us knows this employee's background or how well the task at hand was communicated to him. I simply suggested a method of communication that I use everyday. Experience has taught me that even my best, longest tenured employees can't read my mind. Every job is preceded with a brief communication period where we review the task at hand and even the most basic of processes, just so there's no confusion.

When I see what I consider to be an idiotic mistake on the shop floor, I always consider myself to be the idiot. It's my job to train, set the expectations, put the right person in the right position to be successful.

From contributor S:
Both methods of communication need to coexist in harmony. When you have to resort to formally reprimanding someone in writing, it usually is uncomfortable. I never said to be "a cold, formal communicator on a daily basis." The original poster stated he has "tried repeatedly to teach him to use cutoffs up first and then dig into the new stuff." I assumed he has tried verbal, informal, casual communication with no success. A casual working environment should still be a professional environment.

"Everything you said about written reprimands, performance reviews, and maps for success can be handled verbally, informally, on a daily basis."

They are and should be handled on a daily basis. I tell them immediately when something is wrong. I also would include it in a review if performance still needs improvement.

A brief review of the task at hand is always good. When you constantly have to tell someone to do something one way and they constantly do it a different way, there is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

I can see that our management styles are very similar to one another. Regularly scheduled written reviews are an excellent management tool. They can help employees and employers set and achieve goals, measure progress, eliminate confusion, define areas that need improvement, and the good ones boost morale. Written reprimands clarify the problem, define the solution, add legitimacy, state the consequences, and reinforce your position.

From contributor D:
Seeing as how I've never given an employee a written reprimand in 20 years, I guess I'm a little less tolerant than some folks. If you don't get it after 2 or 3 verbal warnings I figure a written one isn't going to help. Then again, I live in a state where the employer can fire anyone for almost any reason, so I've never been much for documenting that kind of stuff anyway.

From contributor W:
You should never have to tell an employee twice (but it happens). If you have to tell them a third time, you should probably be giving them a verbal warning, and proceeding from there.

Be Firm, Fair, and Friendly. The Firm part also means following up on your disciplinary procedure when the time comes. I write and act tough, granted, but when you enforce a high level of performance, what you are left with is a high performing crew with a great attitude and sense of humor - a real team. The ones that don't cut it stand out like a smashed thumb, and the rest of the crew is taking bets on how long the misfit is going to last. They have confidence that management will take care of the problem.

From contributor M:
I am sure most of us have experienced the same situation of an otherwise valuable employee not following directives of one kind or another. The bottom line is, right now, can you afford to let him go? Will the replacement be a bigger problem? All that said, I recently put a very valuable, long term employee on a 3 week leave (after documenting unacceptable attitude towards fellow employees), 1 paid, 2 not paid. I told him I valued his contributions and hoped he would come back, but if he did, it was with the understanding that his behavior would have to change. After a week, he wanted to come back, but I insisted he take his three weeks. In the end he did come back, with a much improved disposition. I was ready and able to take a chance; only you know if you are.

From contributor A:
"Every time I try to explain this to him, he feeds me attitude. It's gotten a lot worse over the last year, and I'm perplexed as to how to get him to understand."

He understands very well. Do you know the difference between a nice guy and a doormat? A nice guy is nice to himself first. This guy is just pushing you and doesn't respect you, or you wouldn't have gotten attitude when you tried to explain the issue.

I think everyone deals with this. Sometimes it is one poison employee that keeps the boss on edge, keeps him looking for what is going wrong. I usually give new hires a couple of goof ups, tell them nicely to be more careful the first time, then a "come to Jesus" talk on the next screw up, especially if it is something really careless. After that, ratchet it up. Once you get at tail chewing, it becomes counterproductive, makes them nervous, and they screw up even more.

Everyone can make a mistake - forgetting something simple, like a change to the regular procedure that you told them to use. They just forgot. I can understand that. What makes me boil are the plain stupid things that happen. Today I had a guy make a crown cap, two pieces of 3.5" plywood, one 86" long, the other was 12 3/4 inches past the corner, a simple L shaped cap to nail the crown molding to. What does he do? Cuts the short part 1/4" too short, then instead of making it like the drawing (complete with measurements), he makes it opposite. Total dumb, not paying attention type mistake.

Another guy sends a small wood countertop, five feet long, wood trim edge, bumped out front, maybe three hours milling, assembling, and sanding. Sends it back to finishing, huge freaking scratch down the center, he didn't see it in the sheet goods or dragged it across something on the bench.

Both cases were senseless, yet all too common. People being people. I think this will always be with us. But your case is different, same mistake over and over, with an attitude from the employee.

I few posters have said that the careless mistakes can be prevented by high expectations. I would love to know how they did it. I fired the shop screw up yesterday. Sometimes it is better to have these guys working for your competition.

From contributor S:
Finding a good employee starts with you, the employer. You need to know how to interview potential candidates. Do not rush to fill a position with a body. Too many employers hire someone because they think that they have to fill the position now.

You should have an interview process that is the same for everyone who is applying for the position. Everyone fills out the same application, takes the same timed basic skills/knowledge test, gets asked the same questions, references/background checked, drug test. If at any time during this process, you feel a candidate is not a good match, eliminate them from the selection process.

Tell all candidates that you test for drugs. Have candidates fill out the application and take the basic skills/knowledge test first. Do not supply pens and pencils. If a candidate shows up without a pen or pencil, eliminate them immediately. Those that complain about the test get eliminated immediately. After the test, tell all candidates that you test for drugs. Weed out the ones that don't do well.

Those that do well get called for an interview. Tell all candidates that you test for drugs. Have questions prepared for the interview. Ask open ended questions to get the candidate talking while you listen and take notes. Ask direct questions to get specific answers. (There are numerous books on the market that cover interviewing potential employees.)

Those that do well, check their references and background. Those remaining get called for a second interview. Tell all candidates that you test for drugs. Have questions prepared for the interview. Those that do well (you should only have 1 to 3 candidates at this point) take drug test. Those that pass get called for a third interview. Repeat this until you have one candidate left.

Schedule a time for every step of the process. If a candidate shows up late, eliminate them immediately. Once you have one candidate left you are ready to hire your new employee. Hire this person on a 90 day trial basis. You should have an employee manual and a policy and procedure book to give to the new hire. Have them sign a form that states that they have received and read the books.

Do not toss the new hire out on the shop floor and expect perfection. You should have an orientation program in place to train your employee to do the job you hired him to do. The orientation program should last 90 days with regularly scheduled evaluations. Set goals for the new employee and monitor results. Teach them and give them the tools to succeed.

It is your team to build. You are in charge; it is your job to create the best team possible. Be consistent. Be professional. Expect excellence. Train for excellence. Set long term and short term goals for you, your company and your employees. Set a date to accomplish your goals by and work hard to achieve your goals on or before your target date.

From contributor T:
All others who follow this routine for hiring might need a reminder that all good candidates are looking for a job now. They are not looking for a career in interviewing. Caution can be taken to a level that assures you will not get the best candidate, because your competition will have hired them before you get close to finishing your routine. You must have had some very bad luck or very bad instincts in the past to have brought you to this.

I would have eliminated you as someone I would want to work for the third time you reminded me about the drug test. By that time, I would have concluded that you had dementia and could not remember anything you previously said. Which would lead me to believe that you would continue this practice throughout the production shop floor time, causing redundant, repetitive, redundant, repetitive loss of time. Loss of time = lost profits = less pay and less job security.

For sure the last candidate showing up for your process is the most likely one to have shown up on time and without drugs in their system, because by that point they are homeless and have been sleeping in their truck in your parking lot.

From contributor J:
This stuff is real simple - you need the guy or you need him gone.

From contributor S:
I can do this process in less than a week.
Monday - fill out application, take test, first interview, check references
Tuesday - Second interview, drug test
Wednesday - Third interview, sometimes hire date
Thursday - Hire new employee if I didn't hire them on Wednesday
Friday - First day of orientation

Most people who are on drugs need to be told things multiple times before it sinks in. On day one it is said before and after the application/test. It is said to a group of people. Those on drugs usually walk out at this point. During the first interview it is said again to the candidate to see their reaction. During the second interview it is mentioned twice. It is also mentioned that the drug test costs money and will be performed today. This gives the candidate the opportunity to back out now.

From contributor T:
So, you are saying that a guy/gal has to invest 3-5 days of their time and gas money in order to come out the winner of this oh-so-coveted position before they will begin earning dime one? I could see this if the position is VP or CEO, but come on, if you are talking about a shop position, you may need a reality check on the current economic conditions. People out of work have to take food off their children's plates right now in order to get to your job interviews.

Are you also saying that you are charging them for the drug test? Now that would be a racket. "Step up folks, take your drug test, only $50 bucks, maybe you can get a job here!"

I'm thinking that by the time an applicant has reached their second interview with you they probably need to have some drug in their system to continue with the process. A person looking to make a living would have an easier time waiting outside in your parking lot for the applicants who leave after the drug reminder. Bet they could score something faster there to help put food on their kid's plate.

I understand reasonable caution in the hiring process, but I think you have had to hire at least one full time person just to process your routine. If not, maybe you should hire someone with background and good instincts in hiring personnel and you can go do something else that you can do well.

From contributor S:
I've been hiring people most of my career. I can take a pool of 30+ applicants and narrow the pool to 3 or less in less than a day. If you are missing the second phone call, you are missing the call that usually tells you, "you got the job."

"Are you also saying that you are charging them for the drug test?"

No. It costs the company money.

From contributor E:
When it comes to hiring, there is still no guarantee that after going through that entire process you will have the real winner. I also have been hiring and firing for 26 years and you do get to a point where you can see if a person will work out or not. I had a middle aged man apply once, who did very well through the entire interview stage and even had good references. When we got to the day we were going to actually hire him, he said there is something I should tell you. He was an alcoholic and had been sober for 2 weeks. He said he tends to go on binges on weekends so he might not show up on Mondays. We thought at first, why go through all this nonsense and then drop this on the owner? He actually did want the job, but there is no way you can hire someone after they tell you that.

In our current market, we have no one to hire, so if anyone actually shows up to apply for a job, he is a serious consideration. The problem is, if the person is worth hiring, they are already working. We get people showing up with resumes that indicate they have had 12 to 14 jobs in 2 years. With virtually every business hiring, they figure they can keep quitting until they find something they really like. If you have an employee who has a few quirks (which we all have), maybe you find a way to work with them instead of firing them out the door. The process of training new people on a regular basis is almost as painful as hiring and firing for what I would consider to be small stuff. In our efforts to strive for perfection, I think we complicate things beyond belief. It would be wonderful to have all staff, all machines, all suppliers and especially all customers doing their part to be perfect, but not very realistic. Sometimes you do have to fill the position now.

From contributor W:
I would say that less skilled positions generally need just 2 interviews. From my experience running both a small shop and a larger shop, it is the small shop that doesn't have the resources or experience (frequency of hiring) to do this process efficiently. A larger shop gets very used to this process, can hone it, and can hire a higher percentage of keepers than a small shop.

From contributor K:
To the original questioner: Your first post told me who is in charge in your shop. It's not you.

From the original questioner:
You hit the nail on the head. This thought came to me just last night. My employee has Fridays off, but come Monday morning, there is going to be a thorough explanation of just who is giving him that nice paycheck every week and an explanation of how and why I want things done the way I do (again). Thanks again for all the responses.

From contributor T:
Contributor S, your point, as I see it, is that there are those situations where abuse of drugs or alcohol is completely contrary to running a business safely more less effectively. I have had to send people home at 6:30 A.M. because there was no way they could function safely with a broom not to mention allowing them to use a tool. Point is well taken and you are absolutely correct when dealing with this.

Yet, there is so much turmoil and heartache right now for workers trying to find employment, which they may have lost through no fault of their own, that you have to see past some of the paperwork and procedures, to really find the best candidate. The best hire may appear nervous and shaky on the surface, because he/she is. They are trying to feed their families and keep their houses. They are scared to pieces. Some of them probably should be placed on a drug/medication for depression or whatever, because their world feels like it is falling apart. They have no healthcare and they can't take care of themselves until they find work.

I am suggesting that employers looking to hire in our industry look deeper, past the paperwork, and into the hearts of those really asking for work. Some of the best out there have not had to fill out an application for 15-20 years. They have resumes and haven't had to interview for a long time. The best of the best have lost jobs and may be the last to be hired because it is anticipated that their wage requirement or their age is a minus when it used to be a plus.

Being kind and less arbitrarily formal may actually get you the best, most appreciative employee you have ever encountered. Thinking outside the box in conjunction with common sense can benefit you more than hard lines. Anyone who is in a position to hire right now can find the most top notch people in the industry, but they will not show up long for a drawn out cattle call.

From contributor B:
It seems that a lot of focus in the forums revolves around "scolding" or firing employees "because I told them a thousand times to..." While I'm just being general here, most cabinet shops being fairly small are run by a micro managing owner running things by the seat of their pants.

It's so critical to have a detailed procedure manual (see sample below) which spells out every last detail of your operation, so in depth that you could almost pull the next person (minimally skilled hobbyist woodworker anyway) that walks by off the street and they could build your product without any further assistance. Sure it takes a lot of time, but even spread over years and updated as needed, it is better than just pulling something out of their butt as most small businesses do.

For example I've personally made truckloads of dovetailed drawers for projects over the years, but if I don't follow my procedures (because hey, I don't have to answer to anyone), especially if I haven't built any for awhile, I can still make a mistake.

As far as material use, it's good to use materials wisely (and that needs to be specifically addressed in the manual), but having just the "right" amount for the job is also wasteful in terms of time and money. I always get extra because I plan on being in business for a long time and I'll use it on another project... or if I don't follow my own directions!

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor R:
...furthermore, did you check on the situation from time to time and ask how things were going?

From contributor I:
Sometimes experience means "old dog that won't learn new tricks" (like optimization). I'll take a learner with potential every time!

From contributor F:
Remove the error factor early on in the process. We use an optimizer application on our cutlists and print out the reports. These reports state material type, size and the like. Yes, you have to track the off fall and feed it into the optimizer, but you can hand your beam saw operator a cut list with pictures of how and out of what he is to cut the parts. It works, it just plain works. You have done the thinking for him and have gotten what you wanted. Besides, if you optimize your material takeoffs, you will be more accurate on ordering your materials.