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.
PS: Tell us a bit a little bit about some of the projects you've worked on, on the job. Are you working in specific verticals or special industries?
BL: I started out in saw and wood products. I was at a sawmill in Oregon with Weyerhaeuser and that was my first job right out of the Army. It was an interesting time. It was the transition out, and I could tell that the reliability field was brand new because I had heard nothing about it. I was made a reliability engineer kind of overnight. I went from Infantry Captain to Reliability Engineer and it was kind of figure it out as you go. There was no one at the facility that had been a Reliability Engineer and there had been no Reliability Engineers before me, and there was only one gentleman in the northwest for the company that I think really had his finger on it. That was Pat Akins and he introduced me to all this.
He was my first reliability mentor and what he did for me, and I was actually reflecting on this recently – he made reliability cool, which is which is a weird thing to say because I think Pat would even tell you that he probably doesn't consider himself the coolest guy ever, but in this instance he did. He kind of changed the game for me and how we did it was we went and trained with Eruditio through the University of Tennessee's Reliability Maintainability Implementation Certification (RMIC), which is what we still use today. I went out to train with them and it was it was like a year-long application process for the company so Pat would make it very, very sincere: This is what you're getting into. This is what you're accomplishing. This is the value for the company. This is why you're the right person for it.
He would really build it up, and then he would get a solid commitment from the person. The magical thing that he really did (which I didn't get to have this experience), with Pat is all the graduates that would go through, he would award them a backpack at the end of it and say it is now your responsibility to carry the message of reliability out to the world. And I was like, alright, that guy, he gets it. And that's the kind of approach we need to take to get everyone else on board, is that this is a mission and it is our responsibility as the reliability leaders in this country to make sure that it takes place, make sure we have everything for long-term reliability into the future.
PS: That RMIC certification is a heavy lift. I've got a lot of respect for both the process and the folks who go through it. Everyone I've talked to who's gone through it has reported a really positive experience.
BL: Yeah, they have, I've gotten to experience it on the student side. I'm going through with Weyerhaeuser back all those years ago, seven years ago, and then I also got to experience it on the coaching side. Now I've gotten to experience it on the development side and that has been really exciting. One of the cool projects is we've partnered with the University of Tennessee. We've taken our kind of outlandish new age approaches because we are so young and energetic that we're really not bogged down by a lot of the other restraints that our competitors would have, so we've kind of reinvented it.
Me and all my partners have gone through grad school recently, and have experienced that both in person and online, and we're really adopted that kind of training model. So the best grad schools in the world, we said, alright, well, this is how this certification has been applied in the past and it's been great and all those things, but the frustrations we had as students and the frustration we have coaches have not been really taken on yet. So all those ideas are still in place and we just continue to propagate them and we said, alright, well, what's a better way to do this? That's really the big question we've been asking this entire time. What's a better way? And so we're doing it more of a constant touch-base type model; it's still distance learning, but our innovation if you want to call it that is just there's a ton more synchronous sessions. Our students will meet with the coaches once a week for short period of time, and really what they will do is it seems like a greater commitment, but what it is, it'll keep people on track and increase that go rate for it, the graduation rate.
The biggest thing for our clients is that if they're going to invest the money in a student, they want to see them graduate. This will do that and also give them a much better product on the endline because guys won't be cramming in 18 months of training into the last two months before their boss comes down on him for not graduating. It's metered out, it's done deliberately with the coach’s help, and the standard remains the same. That one is probably the most important thing I can say – there's a common standard across your organization, so it's the first step to building a reliability culture.
PS: Before we pressed the record button today, you and I were talking about my experience as a teacher of engineers, and how that aligned with your experience working with people in this field where you need a certain extra passion or creativity, I think, to catch people's imagination, to help carry reliability forward.
BL: Yeah, I completely agree, unlike you I've kind of found myself in this hybrid mix, and I think there's actually a lot of us that are out there and accepting that it's OK to have these additional skills. I see myself as, I am not a born engineer, I was not a born soldier, but in the circles I grew up in a paper mill town in Wisconsin, and paper mill towns in New England, and I was raised by a Recon Marine and football player and all that stuff. I came up and I went into manufacturing, I went into the service and did all those things, and I got a ton of great skills that helped me in manufacturing. But what has really separated me from manufacturing or allowed me to do some innovative things is that truly I'm more of an artist in my mind and how I think about things.
So the guys on the current project, I was actually on the phone with Ron Moore the other morning and I pulled up my mind map that I made for this, the big project we're on. He looks at it goes, “I hate mind maps!” I said this is the only way I can think through stuff, but he said he's got a partner that loves mind maps and like, alright, so you understand that marriage of art and science and it makes a world of difference. And I know that when it when it gets down to the nuts and bolts of it, that's when I'm limited to what I can do, and I got great people like Geraldo Signorini and Brandon Weil; they’re architects, and they can breathe life into it. It's a cool thing. But yeah, I think a big advantage we have is we think about things slightly differently.
PS: Well you take me back too, I've got a couple of folks who work out in Los Angeles, among the Hollywood complex, and one of them had a moment when he was 7, 8, 9 years old, sitting in a movie theater watching the Star Destroyer in Star Wars go right over his head, and he thought, that's what I want to do, I want to make those effects. His career has been centered on very technical engineering type software and art and design all in the service of this vision that he's got. You take that discipline you learn, no matter where it came from. I'm the son of an accountant and the grandson of a tool and die manufacturer, and I couldn't pull my head out of a book when I was a kid. You need that passion. You need that creativity to keep, to keep interest in this field.
BL: It does, and that's kind of what we found, is they're like, what is my passion? I like building things and that's really it. In maintenance, it's an interesting thing: our whole job is to make sure nothing happens. That's a good day if nothing happens in maintenance, that's fantastic. The opportunity there to build something was this thing that everybody has been challenging themselves to do since the beginning of reliability times, which is building a culture and that is what we've taken on. How do you build a reliability culture?
We worked with a client recently, huge company, very advanced in what they produce and what they make, just massive. And the reliability culture there was, it was difficult to get anything started and going because they were making money hand over fist and still doing very well, so there was no real great burning bridge. But what we found where there was really an opportunity to mobilize ideas and people was around the frustration with maintenance workers, was really it, both the reliability engineers and so on. The day-to-day engagements with different groups and the frustrations of, “this is common sense stuff that we're choosing not to do.” You know the anecdotes and the stories, robbing Peter to pay Paul constantly, left and right. Compromising standards just to get things done and it's just misplaced and no good. So we said, alright, what's the craziest thing we can try to build? Reliability culture is it, and that's what we're targeting.
PS: Yeah, I hear you on robbing Peter to pay Paul, there's always that pressure people feel to adhere to a single budget. And yet in the long run, if you can't widen your budget to make necessary repairs or engage in the reliability program you need, it's going to be more expensive in the long term anyway. Somehow there's always dollars for the long term, right? Because they have to be spent. Why can't they be up here from the short term?
BL: Our argument is it's not a question of dollars, it's not a resource problem. It's a resourcefulness issue, that's the one I always throw out there. It's like you guys, throwing money at this is not going to make it go away. It's going to make things worse if anything because you're going to set expectations for this new software, this new thing, or this new whatever to come in and do it. And you're not going to meet those expectations. You're going to get frustrated and you're going to you're going to taint reliability’s image just a little bit more. What you need to do is gather up the resources you've got and put them to use in the best way possible. That's what reliability engineers do and I think that job description or that that mission, if that gets defined and understood in a universal reliability culture, that’s when we'll really start improving.