Making Reliability A Core Value In American Manufacturing

How one organization is helping veterans transition into the manufacturing industry

April 29, 2023
"OK, I have all these skills, I've done this great career. I've got all these medals on my chest. Now they're all gone. It's really a 'who am I and what do I do?' kind of kind of moment."

Bill Leahy is the Chief Executive Officer at Renaissance Reliability, a veteran-owned and operated reliability and maintainability engineering consultancy dedicated to American manufacturers. Bill has worked in manufacturing as an engineering superintendent, maintenance team leader, consultant, and service provider and is an expert in root cause analysis (RCA), reliability-centered maintenance (RCM), and design for reliability and maintainability (DfR). Bill served for 10 years in the United States Army as a West Point Cadet, NCAA Division 1 hockey player, and infantry officer where he learned the values of leadership, self-discipline, resourcefulness, integrity, and teamwork. Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk recently spoke with Bill about why reliability is the cornerstone of manufacturing success, and how veterans can help companies achieve their reliability goals.

Listen to Bill Leahy on The Tool Belt Podcast

PS: You and your team at MARCON outlined two very specific missions, so hopefully we can talk about each of those in sequence here. The first one literally was “Protect and Advance Made In America Prestige” and that in part involves broadcasting the efficacy of reliability best practices and the impact of industrial waste to an audience large enough to reach decision and policy makers. I've seen the work that SMRP has done in this regard with their outreach to Capitol Hill, and I was really impressed that you've also had that same mindset, which is to change minds and change policy.

BL: Yeah, we do. We see manufacturing as entering a period of transformation, and there is such a nuanced, artful application of the trades, and it's come head to head with these marvelous advances in science and technology. I think we're reaching a period where they're starting to integrate effectively, so it's now accessible, it's affordable and applicable on every different scale and that's created this this opportunity for great change and reimagining of what we do. That's kind of what we're going after. So we want to say that reliability is undeniable in its value, and we see it as our responsibility to carry that message forward and have it considered in the equation.

Just to give this some foundation, the true cost of downtime report for 2023 estimates that Fortune 500 manufacturers, so our biggest and best manufacturers, will lose $1.5 trillion to unscheduled production downtime this year. That's too much. That's 11% of gross revenue. Reliability is undeniable and we’ve got to do better. It's gross, I mean it's gross negligence if you wanted to put it in any other way, I don't think you could.

The idea of protecting and advancing Made In America prestige, what that came from is like, OK, we have these other elements of our value system in manufacturing, just U.S. businesses, environmental safety and health, those are cornerstones of what we do. I used to get yelled at saying that safety is a priority and they’d say “no, it's not, safety is a value, it is something you embody.” It didn't make sense to me at the time but now it completely does. Reliability has to be a core value, has to be something we embody. The part that I struggle with is that it is so evident to us in our industry at how these things tie together, because we know if you improve reliability, you improve safety; if you improve reliability, you improve environmental scores; you improve reliability, your OEE goes up. Everything improves with reliability.

PS: Your plant, your assets, your machines, they all do what they're supposed to do, so there are no surprises and it reduces that injury rate and increases the safety rate.

BL: We believe that if we can serve that up in a way where the policymakers and decision makers like we mentioned can understand very, very easily in one rapid reading or one rapid view, they can understand it and it puts them in a position where they have to act. I'm not saying I want an OSHA or a EPA to manage reliability in this country, but I do think it needs that kind of consideration. If we ended up with something like that, we would end up with an ISO standard that forces people to take a lot of actions that they don't necessarily need to take and will not help the reliability at all. What I would love to see, what my vision is that the idea of RESH – reliability, environmental, safety, and health – all on the same level, they're just as important. We recognize them and when we make decisions, we say, OK, if we do this, how does it affect environmental, safety, health, and reliability. Ultimately, if those four things we believe are in balance and they're being properly managed by business and manufacturing processes, we'll get the ROI, it will come. If you’re focused on just the piggy bank at the end, then you're going to miss some stuff and make some poor decisions.

PS: Well, this ties into your second mission too, this is a little bit more personal side, where it's “reduce the veteran suicide rate.” That was really powerful, as (1) you've got some personal experience with that, and you can talk about if you feel like it, and (2) I also saw a parallel because in those two missions, because you're drawing a similarity that there is a price for not supporting people and machines in the right ways. There is a price for not supporting returning soldiers. There is a price for not supporting your plant the right way. Maybe that's the parallel that you saw. Can you tell us more about that that particular mission?

BL: No, I love that. The parallel between that is exactly what you said. So the tag line for the mission is “a lot of people care, just not in the right ways” and the Manufacturing Leaders Project is designed to uncover what those ways are. So we're kind of throwing everything at it. And the correlation we saw between the two is, “OK, reliability, we're suffering, we've been suffering for a long time. We're doing a lot of good stuff. So that same report that I mentioned earlier, they also reported a 23% reduction in equipment failures for that same year, but it's a $500 billion increase in the cost of downtime. So we're going to say, alright, there's obviously a problem here. We're throwing money at it, we're doing better, but it's ending up costing us more. That was one where I said alright, that's an issue.

And then on the veteran side, I'm going to throw some more statistics out there. 24 veterans commit suicide every day. 24. The duration of this is really the part that drives me most crazy, is that 6000 plus have committed suicide every year for the past 20 years. And there is 4,500 military and veteran nonprofits dedicated to serving these people when they transition out or just anytime during their careers and that's the result. It's not a resource issue on either side. The resources are there. The question is, what are we doing with these resources? Is it effective? Hell no! The answer is quite clear, the answer is no.

So what we’re doing is we have this idea of mutual aid versus charity. It's kind of a cool concept and really what it does is just where do you position the decision-making and the accountability for the project? With us it’s we’re taking it out of the hands of the decision-makers, the leadership and businesses, we're taking it out of their hands temporarily and bringing it in-house, and we're saying that we can do this without having to ask permission. We have the resources, we'll pull them together. We are accountable to ourselves and to industry for this mission. That's it. And we're going to go ahead and do it.

And that's kind of where we're going on both sides of it. For the reliability piece, we're saying no, we’ve got all our buddies in industry, they've got the best stuff, and they've got the best stuff. If we put it all together and show the world what we can do, they will accept that as “this is our reliability culture” and “this is where we want to go with the veterans.”

And like you said, for me this is very personal, like this project in its scope was much smaller three months ago. We were doing this just for industry. But on December 1, my brother Major Sean Leahy committed suicide. He was one of the 24.

PS: My sympathies, Bill.

BL: Thank you. Out of that horrible tragedy, this was this was born out of it, and it was actually a project that he and I have been talking about doing. You know, you go back and you go through all the materials and stuff, and I discovered this after the week after the MARCON speech, is that he and I have been talking about this as a project since October, before Medalcraft. And he had taken that new job in manufacturing at even become part of the picture, and how we could do this. It was working with a veteran going through the transition at that real time and I had been through it and seeing it, and those conversations are really what has shaped this. What is the right way to care about this person? And now it sucks looking back on it, because I can read it exactly what he was asking for during that time, but the program is just going to be a couple months too late.

But it's going to do wonders for saving other people and what they need is they need community. They need a certainty in themselves and in their future, and they need connection. That's what they need, and this project can give it to them, and it can give it to them to them in this reliability field. It's just a really cool thing, and I think both reliability and veterans are starving for the same kind of connection, the same kind of acknowledgement and relief from obscurity, and kind of find it together and that's really exciting.

PS: I was talking with somebody who's a placement specialist for reliability, and that person was saying he had never seen a similar industry that was so founded on handshakes and hugs, that sense of community you're talking about. Once you're in this field, you get to meet this person, the next person, and suddenly you realize we all know each other, and it becomes very supportive and self-sustaining.

BL: It does! It's a wonderful thing, and it's a lot of the connection you miss from the military is stuff that we are recreating with this project. I can go into the project a little bit if you'd like.

PS: Yeah, if you could.

BL: So what we're doing is, the most difficult time for veterans when they transition out is that period from when they step off of base, and you can't put a timeline on it, because for me it was multiple years it took before I felt comfortable and felt like myself again. A lot of them, the result for a lot of people is that, you know, they take their lives. So it's a terribly difficult time. And one of the most difficult things is that, “OK, I have all these skills, I've done this great career. I've got all these medals on my chest. Now they're all gone.” It's really a “who am I and what do I do?” kind of kind of moment.

They need mentorship and they need coaching, and that's what we're going to offer. There's a great program out there called SkillBridge that allows people with ideas and know-how to get folks the training that they need in industry or wherever, and they can do it while they're still part of the military. So there's funding available, and we're going to use that to take a handful of veterans to Green Bay, WI to that factory where my brother was working. I've become close with the ownership team there, and they're awesome.

We have it's almost like the inverse of normal what we run into, is we have a manufacturing facility that has its culture in spades. And I'm not saying they don't have a reliability culture, but they have a culture. The owner of the company, Jerry Moran, he's out on the floor, he's running machines, he's working with the guys and it's not that they're running behind. It's just he likes to be out there with them. This one really struck me – walking around with the owner of the company, you usually get people scurry away, like when the lights come on, the roaches run away. It wasn't like that here. It was walking around with leadership that people are turning around to say, “hey, Jerry, look what I'm working on.” It was just a completely different thing.

So excited to work in that environment, and also that they have no reliability program. At all. We start from scratch. It's going to be really exciting. It's a good size facility, it's 80 people, there’s a lot of presses, water jets, all kinds of cool stuff for us to play with. We're going to take those guys there, we're going to partner them up with civilian teammates on the other side so they can mentor each other. The veterans get to learn about manufacturing from the civilian perspective; and these guys will learn about process, and all those wonderful things at the military does very well. And we're going to do a full turn around project in three months. They're going to go through every element of manufacturing, not just asset management or looking at manufacturing. So all the operations pieces, just anything and everything, they will get it.

And the idea is that, “OK, so they left the military, no idea what they were going to do. No certainty in themselves and whatnot. And well, we're going to do is take them, learn what their skills are, learn the things that they had, and since we understand that because we're a team of – on my Advisory Council, I've got a Admiral from the Coast Guard; I'm a West Point guy so I’ve got the army angle, we've got Brandon Weil is a Navy nuke, we've got Air Force guys, we've got everything. (We need a Space Force guy, but there's not too many of them running around.) So we get it. And I think that we are uniquely positioned to do this, and it going to turn into something really, really cool.

PS: You know, the more I scratch the surface of the reliability field, the more I see how many, especially Coast Guard guys there are who move into this area. Unbelievable.

BL: Yeah, for me it's the Navy nukes. Every person I ran into worked on a submarine and maybe that just resonates with me because of where I live. I live in Connecticut. I'm right across, I can see the General Dynamics or electric boat where they build the submarines. They're coming up and down the river and yeah, it's everywhere. That's the exciting thing with my kids too. I went to the Operation Uniform graduation, and it's a skilled-work program where they prepare veterans for finding work on the outside. Even with that training, their answers were very vague about what they want to do. “I'm interested in human resources. I'm interested in project management or anything like that.” I was thinking, God, if you just knew how much manufacturing is out there and the diversity of it, because I'll drive around my kids, I'll be like, there's a factory for that, there's a factory for the thing that had to make that to make that, everything is manufactured. It's just all around you. It's a cool field!

PS Our kids suddenly started thinking about this when we couldn't find, I think it's 3-oz bathroom cups manufactured by Dixie. I mean, you can get disposable 3-oz bathroom cups like for brushing your teeth. Those are still in the market, of course. But the Dixie brand is tough to find up here in Chicago. And we did a little poking around. It turns out there was some plant consolidation going on, which meant production slowed down. But my boys are 11 and 9, and this is the first time they observed they couldn't get something they had once had and took for granted. And so they start asking the questions. “Well, how are those made? Where are they made? Did the people not want to make them anymore?” And that led to some great discussions about this field.

BL: Yeah, that's a good point too. You don't appreciate it because it's just been running like a well oiled machine for so long.

PS: And then suddenly the cup is different and they're like, wait a second, what's going on here? They notice, they're old enough to notice. It's a little thing, but little things sometimes in a little person's world can make a big deal.

BL: I've noticed this with my son and at his school with engineering and some of the more practical applications of it, and YouTube's actually done a good job with that. Some of those celebrity engineers now have done a fantastic job of getting these guys excited, and that's kind of what we're going for with this too. So I challenge my son, when I travel I bring a switch with me, so we'll play Minecraft at night at the from the hotel room and I challenged him. He's 10, but I'll be like, I want you to build me a bread company in Minecraft from the agriculture piece of it to harvest all the way through distribution. He was a 10 year old, and was able to build that up and just manipulating the code and the different blocks and everything. And it's been really, really cool.

It's amazing what they come up with, but I really think and kind of one of the a-has for that, was I've been trying to talk to him about what I do at work for forever. Like, everyone in my family, I kind of get that blank like, “all right Bill, tell us when you got something funny to say, tell us a story about the time the goat got into the factory,” that kind of thing. So one of the one of the realizations we had was that I could not get them interested or start a conversation with them, but by just changing the channel slightly and how we approach that communication piece, it's made an incredible difference. That's one of the big things we're playing with too.

When I was at the when I was in the my MBA program, I went did a market analysis for our industry, sort of for reliability consulting or whatever you want to say it. So I list out all of the different competitors we had. On one side of the MATE 1 axis and then all the different positions on the top and then all the different offerings, because I wanted to see at what level were there gaps? Who is underserved? Who was overserved? Where were their opportunities that we could move into and what I realized is there is a ceiling on offerings, like the director level, Maintenance Director. We were failing as this consulting this you know call it a lobbying arm of industry. By not pushing ourselves out there, we've accepted it.

In that program I came up with a marketing strategy on how to get in touch with these people and how to affect them. I brought it to the old leadership and they're like, yeah, people have tried it, it will never work. I was like, alright, I'll put that one to the side for now and then now we're getting it resurrected and it's really exciting. That's one of the big issues, is that reliability is not in business school, in even some of the engineering programs it's lacking, and I know that because I went through the University of Tennessee's Reliability and Maintainability master’s program, I went through UNC Chapel Hill’s MBA program and we barely talked about it in either one as far as asset management goes. Obviously the reliability engineering problem was really, really good, but it was focused on product reliability, not manufacturing. Completely different things.

But, we go to the same business schools and the same universities as all those people in Washington, and they're not getting the industrial experience that we have in our everyday jobs. They just don't know. And then we need to communicate in new ways with them. So we found that producing a film would be great or anecdotal evidence – just make it eye-catching and fun.

PS: Let's make sure we talk about the film today too. What can you tell us about the film that you're working on?

BL: Sure. “A Story Of Hope” right now is the is the working title, we have another one, a couple others that we're playing with, but yeah, this is the culmination of everything. We've been talking about all these issues that we have, veteran suicide, the obscurity of reliability, and what we've come up with is this is the project, this is my brother and mine's vision kind of coming together. This is a living amends for me. People have asked, what does this film mean to you? It's a living amends. It's for my brother; I get an opportunity to go back to Wisconsin, help the factory that he was going to help. I'll get to spend some time with his boys and build a relationship with them. His wife’s there, she's been a friend of the family for 30 years. We'll get to do that portion of it, tie up loose ends for him.

And then for me, it's kind of that same thing. I was not a great Army officer, I'll just straight up say that. My career was uneventful and, yeah, not great, and the soldiers that were under my leadership for a brief period of time, I wish I would have done better kind of thing. I was a young man and I did not understand the responsibility that I had at the time, and I could have done a better job. And that I couldn't help them then, but now I’ve matured and I have something very valuable I can offer them, so that's part of it for me. And then losing a brother, it's unnecessary. It doesn't have to be this way. It's finding new ways to do it is.

PS: In the fliers you passed out at MARCON, a familiar name jumped out to me: Dr. Kim Bynum. She's working with your team. I talked with her on her previous work about a year and a half ago.

BL: Did you really? Oh, I didn't know that there was a connection there. Yes, she's fantastic. I met her at Operation Uniform’s graduation, and she's coming on because we know there there's a business element to reliability that we haven't brought in, and we have to be able to communicate that. I've been through business school, but I am not Dr. Kim. She is the professor of I think it's leadership and management and organizational behavior at Jacksonville State University, and she too is a retired Navy captain. She's an 06. She did a career. She was enlisted before, too, so she understands every single rank in the military, and also she has some different perspectives as a woman. Yeah, she's fantastic.

Her primary role on the film and say, OK, that's great. She's a leadership manager, but what we want her to focus on is, we do some great stuff from reliability and a lot of our clients and our competitors’ clients advance and it then it goes backwards as soon as that energy leaves, so there's a suck there. One of the things we were focusing on Dr. Kim’s purpose will be, “what does sustainability look like after these guys leave? How do we create or make this a cultural thing in part of the everyday practice?” Dr. Kim will be helping with that.

Other key players: the film company that we're working with is Never Forgotten Media, they’re out of San Diego. Michael Wood, he's a Marine Corps veteran running that one. They've been absolutely lights up. They've been awesome this whole time. The University of Tennessee with Kim Kallstrom and Klaus (Blache), they're both fantastically helpful.

And then Medalcraft Mint, I can't say enough about them. It's crazy what he's doing. That was the thing I was most worried about when entering this project. I had to find a factory that's willing to open their doors, and I had to find a factory with an owner that's crazy enough to say, “yeah, go for it.” And he was like, I knew that this needs to happen, he's on board. That's how this whole project's been going, that's why I love the mutual aid approach to it, is that every time we've run into an issue with one of these big power structures like we need permission or something like that, we've asked the question, “well do we really? Or is there another way about this?” and we just keep on cruising along.

One of the things that Michael said to me recently, he’s the director and he's like, “well, you guys have done in three months what for most of these films and projects is like 6-8 years to get to this point. It's all been from that change in approach to slightly where no one compromises anything. We're not looking for compromise. It's just collaboration. What resources do you have, or what can we do for you? It's been this really, really cool project and I think that's going to be exciting too when we when we start bringing our friends in from industry to help on site. We're going to bring competitors in and have them demonstrate what they do because it's that important. And there's enough work out there for everybody, too. There's so much work and so much need, and that's why they can't fill all these reliability billets. I'm ready to work together! Anybody out there listening to this podcast wants to get together and do some good work, find me.

PS: Let's point them in your direction. They can find you on LinkedIn for sure. What other websites would you direct them to for more information?

BL: is our main site, and then coming up very, very shortly, the film will be putting on a lot of production, marketing kind of stuff and that'll be the best place to follow the project in its entirety. We also have some other stuff going on this summer to build awareness around this. We're going to attack a couple Guinness Book of World Records, one for longest prayer chain. That’s currently held by the Aussies, and we want to do it to build the Church community or the spiritual community around the film and the project.  Different groups can fill out little bar bracelets, then send them in, and we’ll assemble them all and see if we can break that record at the end of the summer. So there's groups moving with that one, and that one would be pretty cool and powerful.

But yeah, there will be all kinds of stuff. It really is going to be a movement. I’ve rented a house in Wisconsin for the summer so if anyone wants to come in and visit and see Metalcraft, you’re more than welcome.

PS: Well, I'm based out here in Chicago, so I don't know if it's a long drive up there, but maybe I can swing by and see what's happening on site this summer. That'd be great.

BL: That would be fantastic. We are in the shadow of Lambeau Field. And what they make there is the military coins that we all love so much. Custom recognition is the industry they're in, but they do those, they make just so much cool stuff like the medal for the Arnold Classic, the weightlifting competition, they make those and NCAA trophies all that stuff. Very cool stuff.

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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