The Lumberjack Story 

  By Penny Reynolds 

The Lumberjack StoryThe lumberjack story has been made famous by a reference to it in Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.It’s popular due to all of the metaphorical messages about life contained within it.Do a quick read and see how many messages you can take from the story to apply to your call center training and coaching.

The Story

It was the final of the Annual Lumberjack Competition, and after days of chopping, sawing, and tree climbing, only two competitors remained. One was an older experienced lumberjack and the other was a strong fellow about twenty years his junior. The rules of the competition were quite simple. The two lumberjacks would be sent into the woods and the one who could cut the most trees in eight hours would be the winner.

The younger lumberjack was full of enthusiasm and went off into the woods and started cutting trees immediately.  He worked all through the day, barely taking time to catch his breath or to grab some food and water.  He felt more and more confident with every tree he felled, because he knew that he had superior youth and stamina than the older lumberjack.  He also felt sure of his win since he could hear the older fellow working in another part of the woods, and at regular intervals throughout the day, the noise of falling trees coming from the other man would stop.  The younger lumberjack naturally assumed the older guy was taking more frequent breaks because of his age and lesser strength.  He was confident his youth and stamina would win him the competition.

When the final whistle blew, the younger lumberjack felt confident he had won as he looked out over the piles of trees he had cut.  He made his way over to the podium for the medal ceremony and climbed to the platform confident of his victory. The older fellow was there, actually looking much less tired than he did.  When it was time to announce the winner, the younger lumberjack was waiting to hear his name, but was devastated when the older man was declared the winner.

The younger man turned to the winner and asked, “How can this be? I heard you taking breaks every hour while I worked continuously.  I am younger, fitter, and stronger than you. How could you possibly have beat me?”

The older man smiled and said, “Son, I was not stopping to rest. I was stopping to sharpen my saw.”

What Does It Mean?

There are many lessons in this simple story.

First, at its simplest level, it certainly means you need the right tools to get the job done and it’s worth the time to make sure the tool is right.  In the call center, the right “tool” can quite literally be a tool or new technology.  Having effective tools like quality monitoring with speech analytics can help pinpoint areas of concern for coaching or reinforcement. Training tools such as e-learning and learning management systems can help ensure frontline staff get just the tailored training they need in a timely fashion. Rather than continuing to make the same mistakes or work ineffectively, an effective application of technology can maximize your staff’s performance.

At another level, “sharpening the saw” can mean rethinking processes or procedures. It’s not unusual to see call centers that have outdated or unnecessary processes in place that have been in place for a while but no longer make sense. They continue to be in place just because “it’s always been done that way.”  Sometimes taking a step back to examine call handling procedures, administrative steps, or even performance measures can be fine-tuning the call center badly needs.

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Abraham Lincoln

Sharpening one’s saw is also a metaphor for training.  It’s critical to continually measure performance to determine where additional training or different training is needed for the necessary expansion or fine-tuning of skills. This assessment is important from an individual agent perspective, but also from the training program in general.  Every call center can benefit from honest feedback from trainees as well as from measurement of performance linked to training.  As a business evolves and customer and employee needs change, it’s important that the training program be continuously honed to keep up.

I also like to think that another message from the story could be that rest is just as important as hard work.  It is critical to have appropriate break times within the day as well as sufficient vacation time to ensure each person can bring a fresh outlook and rested mind and body to the job at hand.

In Steven Covey’s book, he uses the lumberjack story as a metaphor for the need to stay sharp in life and to continually look for ways to improve oneself.  Think about ways you can do this for yourself, but also be on the lookout for ways this important lesson can be applied in your contact center.

Penny Reynolds was Co-Founder of The Call Center School and is a popular speaker and writer in the area of call center operations. Recently retired, she serves as an Educational Advisor to QATC, continuing to provide thought leadership and training to the contact center community.  She can be reached at or at 615-812-8410.