THE MANAGEMENT ART OF STACKING FIREWOOD

William Faulkner (1897-1962), American writer and Nobel Prize winner said “The Swiss are not a people so much as a neat, clean, quite solvent business”.

I am in Klosters in Switzerland for two weeks of skiing with my family, and it is almost impossible to not see how right Faulkner was, particularly when it comes to neatness, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the way that the Swiss put so much effort into cutting and stacking their firewood.

Stack

Stack

Not only is this an art form, but the Swiss believe that as a wood pile tends to be public, it also says as much about the person who has created it as does their garden, their letterbox or the car that is sitting in the driveway.

For example, a hard-working, serious man will stack straight and square with true symmetry, which will create a woodpile that will stand well and look good, whereas a lazy person will just leave all the wood in the pile that is dumped on delivery, or will start to stack but will never finish. A timid man will build a low stack with the larger pieces on the bottom and the smaller on top, whereas a socially or politically ambitious person will make his stack very high with large pieces on top just to show off to those who pass by. A person who puts the stack too far from the house, even if the stack is to be admired, is obviously a non-thinking person, as collecting the wood in the middle of a snowy winter will be harder than it should be.

Stack

Stack4

It is obviously not easy, nor straightforward, being Swiss with a pot-belly stove or a wood burning fireplace.

There are some basic rules that must be observed in building a suitable firewood stack, and as I began to understand these, I also couldn’t help but notice that they are not very different to the basic rules that need to be observed to be a successful manager.

These woodpile stacking rules are:

– Do not put your base directly on the earth, but put your wood on a prepared base that will be stable and that will be dry to prevent bottom rot.

– Make stable end towers. It is important to find the right pieces to fit well together to be able to withstand shifting and thus keep the integrity of the stack.

– Remember that you will need to allow for different shapes and sizes, and allow for thick and thin ends that will taper.

– Do not forget that wood shrinks as it dries, and if one side gets more sun than another it will dry and shrink faster, and this can cause the stack to lean and even collapse.

– Do not stack too tightly but allow for airflow to assist in drying.

– Build the stack close to where it will be used.

– Protect the stack from the elements with a cover such as wooden shingles or black plastic.

There are many more, but these are the salient ones.

The parallels that I see with capable management are as follows:

– You can only build a successful team at any level if you first prepare the base, meaning that you need to be able to build the values that will drive team behaviour both internally and with every part of the ecosystem that the team will be in contact with. A team that does not have integrity, being “what is thought is what is said is what is done” will not succeed for long.

– You must ensure that you protect the integrity and stability of the team by finding the right people to put together to ensure that the team can overcome shifting, whether this is in the markets that you address or the competitive landscape that you work within.

– For a team to be strong, it is important that you allow for “different shapes and sizes”. Having a team that is made up of clones of the leader may make the team easier to “stack” and direct, but ultimately will not create a team that will drive change, creativity and innovation. It is important that the team has some players who have “knots”, and while this will make them “hard to stack”, they will look at situations differently to the herd, and will question decisions where others may fear to tread.

– As a manager it is important that you ensure that all parts of your team get an equal amount of “sunshine”. You have to spend as much time and effort addressing those that struggle as you do spending time with those who are doing well. If one part of your team or organisation is allowed to “dry out” it will affect the success of the entire team.

– You cannot control your people too tightly, but must allow for “airflow”, meaning that you must give your people the room to put their stamp on their job and on the team. Nobody has as much ownership in something as when they have helped to build it, and building ownership builds commitment and engagement.

– A good manager will build his team as close as possible to where it will be used, being both internal and external customers. Most companies will have emblazoned on their crest that “the customer is number 1”, but from what I have seen, in many companies the customer would be lucky to make it into the “Top-10”.

– It is important that the manager protects his team “from the elements”. This does not mean that a manager should keep information from his people, as keeping your team well informed on what is happening in the company removes the need for rumour and gossip. It does however mean that the role of a manager is to ensure that s/he protects the team from interruptions, distractions and the politics that exist in most companies, so that the team can get on with doing their job, and doing it well.

The Swiss may well be the neatest nation on earth, but I believe that the reason that they are so successful is that when they commit to doing something they commit to doing it well, even if it is something as mundane as building a firewood stack or as complex as building a successful banking or pharmaceutical industry.

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6 Responses to THE MANAGEMENT ART OF STACKING FIREWOOD

  1. Frank says:

    Hi Les, very interesting analogies, with humour. Recent business press in Aussie has been the number of CEOs with military/naval training and backgrounds, possibly for similar reasoning. As there isn’t much demand for wood stacking down under, we’ve had to find alternate parallels.
    Enjoying the blog. Regards, Frank

    • leshayman says:

      Frank, I have to admit that I am finding military and “business is war” parallels somewhat passé… I am sure that there are others that could work in Australia such as “Sheep shearing as a management skill”. 🙂 Les

  2. Adriana says:

    Dear Mr. Hayman,

    It is again amazing for me how a great leader like you transforms firewood stacking into a management lesson. Beyond the lesson that is great I find this idea even more inspiring.

    I’m in Lausanne to learn at this moment and as my professor would say, you are already becoming a secure base for me throgh your writings.

    Thank you!
    Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Adriana, I’m glad that you enjoyed “firewood stacking” and that it was worthwhile learning for you. I hope you enjoy your time in Laussane … we passed nearby returning home to Bordeaux from Klosters in Switzerland where we were skiing. It’s a nice part of the world. Les

  3. Profundareflexion says:

    Another great post Mr. Hayman, as always.The analogies are apt. I particularly believe in the one about having the base of integrity.

    • leshayman says:

      Profundareflexion, integrity is the starting point for everything. What you believe has to be the same as what you say has to be the same as what you do. Les

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