Background Operating room (OR) time is expensive. Underutilized OR time negatively impacts efficiency and is an unnecessary cost for hospitals. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the impact of a pre-OR timeout and performance pay incentive on the frequency of on-time, first surgical starts. Methods At a single Veterans Affairs Medical Center, we implemented a pre-OR timeout in the form of a safety-briefing checklist and a modest performance pay incentive for on-time starts (>90% compliance) for attending surgeons. Data were collected on all first-start cases beginning before implementation in 2008 and continued through 2015. Results Each year, an average of 960 first starts occurred across nine surgical divisions. Before implementation of either the timeout or pay incentive, only 15% of cases started on time, and by 2015, greater than 72% were on time (P < 0.001). Over the study period, there were significant improvements in on-time starts (P = 0.01), of delays <15 min (P = 0.01), and of delays 16 to 30 min (P = 0.04). The trends for delays of 31 to 60 min or >60 min were not significant (P = 0.31; P = 0.81). Assuming a loss of 7 min per case for delays <15 min and 20 min per case for delays of 16 to 30 min, the total OR time saved from implementing these measures was 37,556 min. At an estimated cost of $20/min, gross savings from this project were $751,120. Conclusions Implementation of a pre-OR timeout and performance pay for on-time starts significantly improves OR utilization and reduces unnecessary costs.