Jon Rennie | Nuclear Submarines & Engineering Leadership
Who is Jon Rennie?
Jon Rennie is the Co-Founder, President & CEO of Peak Demand Inc., a premier manufacturer of critical components for electrical utilities. Jon is also a former U.S. Navy Nuclear Submarine Officer who made seven deployments during the end of the Cold War.
Prior to starting Peak Demand, Jon led eight manufacturing businesses for three global companies. He is the author of three best-selling leadership books and is the host of the Deep Leadership podcast.
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people, product, submarine, engineer, problem, teams, company, customers, engineering, trained, big, called, shop floor, technical, plant, nuclear submarine, officer, work, hourly employees, learn
Jon Rennie, Presenter, Aaron Moncur
Hi everyone, we’ve set up this being an engineer podcast as an industry knowledge repository, if you will, we hope it’ll be a tool where engineers can learn about and connect with other companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities. So make some connections and enjoy the show.
Jon Rennie 00:18
If you’re not embarrassed by the first iteration of your product, you’re not moving fast enough, too many companies will waste a lot of money making a perfect product and then they end up having no customers for it.
Aaron Moncur 00:43
Hello, and welcome to the being an engineer Podcast. Today we’re speaking with Jon Rennie, who is the co founder, president and CEO of peak demand, Inc, a premier manufacturer of critical components for electrical utilities. John is also a former US Navy nuclear submarine officer, who made seven deployments during the end of the Cold War. Prior to starting peak demand, John led eight manufacturing businesses for three global companies. He is the author of three best selling leadership books, and is the host of the deep leadership podcast. John, welcome to the being an engineer show.
Jon Rennie 01:23
Hey, it’s great to be here. Thank you.
Aaron Moncur 01:25
All right. Well, what made you decide to become an engineer?
Jon Rennie 01:29
Well, it’s interesting, because I don’t really have any history of anyone in my family ever becoming an engineer. But I decided early on that I wanted to become a naval officer on nuclear submarines. And as I did the research, trying to figure out how does one go from being a kid in a small town in New Hampshire, to getting on, you know, these these massive nuclear ships? What I learned was you had to have a technical background, and that that increased your pot, your likelihood of getting on to the boats. So I then I figured out okay, well, I don’t, I don’t really know much about engineering. I don’t know much about math and science. This was this was even before high school, I was researching this and as a freshman in high school as I started looking into this, and they said, Well, you have to have math and science and you know, you should be an engineer. So I was like, Well, what’s an engineer? What are the possibilities? Right? And electrical, chemical? All those things didn’t make sense to be. But Mechanical Engineering sounded like, Okay, well, I, I’m always been a person that can take things apart, put things back together, fix things. So I was like, well, I could probably figure out mechanical engineer, I could figure out mechanical things. So So I said, That’s what I was going to do, I was going to try to figure out how to get into a good engineering school and become a mechanical engineer. So through high school, I worked hard to, you know, get good math and science grades so that I could get into a good engineering school, but it was all so that I could get to the boats so I could get to the fleet. So but so really, it was my desire to get into the submarine force that kind of led me down a path of engineering.
Aaron Moncur 03:03
Yeah, so a means to an end. What what do you think it was about submarines that called to to so strongly back then.
Jon Rennie 03:12
So I had two grandfathers that served in World War Two. And I was that curious kid that just wanted to hear their stories. And, you know, we I grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. And, you know, people didn’t leave the city. You know, it was like you grew up here. You had your family here, you died there. That’s what everybody did in Manchester. But my grandfather’s went off and did this adventure in World War Two, and they tell their stories. And as a kid, I was like, fascinated by those stories. One of my grandfather’s was in the Navy and what was in the army. But as I as I researched and read books about World War two submarines just sort of fascinated me, you know, what they did, especially after what happened in Pearl Harbor, and the Submarine Force sort of took over and basically held the line why we rebuilt our fleet and were able to, you know, build up a, you know, a navy to go back and, and to go up against Japan. But the heroics of those World War Two submarine co captains, one of them was from from my home state that I was just fascinated by reading about him. And I said, you know, I want to do that I want to do on some adventure I want to do so I want to get out of this. This the city where everybody born is, you know, is, you know, you’re born, you raise your family and you die here, I want to do something different. I want to go on an adventure. So that that’s what it was. It was a, it was a young boy’s dream that turned into a reality. And it’s, you know, it’s funny, because a lot of people dream of being an astronaut or a firefighter or whatever. But usually those dreams sort of fade away. Mine never did. That was something I had a passion for. And I ended up you know, figuring out how to do it.
Aaron Moncur 04:48
Well, amazing. Thank you for sharing that. Well, a lot of your career has been spent in leadership. But before we get to that, and we will spend a lot of time talking about that. I wanted to talk about engineering for a little bit. I’m I read something on your LinkedIn profile that was interesting to me it it, it might sound boring to a lot of people. But for engineers, especially those who are working on on products, I think this is an interesting and relevant thing to discuss it it was a little while ago, so I won’t hold you to highest standard, if you don’t remember the details about this. But back in in 1996, you led a team of I don’t know 25 Or so engineers to reduce your product warranty, I think it was by 50% or something, I’m assuming that means that 50% less product came back under warranty. Do you remember the the process that you went through to do that? Because I imagine, you know, a lot of us who are working on products, we would love to engineer more reliability into our products and have 50% Come back in warranty. So what was the process that you went through to to do that? Yeah, so
Jon Rennie 05:55
back then I think at that, at that time, I was, I was serving as a quality manager for the division that I was working for global company, I was ABB a company called ABB, which is a large global engineering company. But so we we had a lot of variability are products, they were engineered to order products. And so inevitably, when you have very variability in your product, you have problems when he gets out of the field. So we met we a lot of us, we studied Six Sigma, we, you know, became a Six Sigma Black Belt. And so we had a team of black belts, and we started just taking the variability out of the product trying to figure out what was causing some of these failures in the field. What was it was it mistakes in engineering was it mistakes on the manufacturing floor, and just sort of diving into those, you know, the the variance in the product and trying to eliminate the variance so that we had a more consistent product. And we had a more consistent way that we engineered these orders. And that and also how we checked to make sure that they were right before they left the building so that they met all of the requirements of the customer. So it was a it was all encompassing effort that I led with with you know, very smart and capable quality engineers working on just attacking all the problems that we found in in the manufacturing process in the design process as we built these products. So it was a you know, a six sigma is the basis of it, but it was just a lot of hard work and a lot of effort towards trying to eliminate the variance in our product. Both engineering and design.
Aaron Moncur 07:30
Okay, yeah, six sigma being the the critical foundation, I guess, off of which all those efforts were based.
Jon Rennie 07:37
Yeah, six sigma. Yeah. And it was interesting, because we, you know, there’s a lot of tools in Six Sigma, I think we what we tried to do is find the right tools to fix the problems that we were seeing. So we use a lot of different tools from the toolbox to be able to, you know, attack the problems that we saw,
Aaron Moncur 07:54
I had an interesting experience. Recently, I know this podcast is about you, not me, but this is a pretty relevant one. So quickly share it, we purchased some video equipment, a jib arm that swings side to side. And it had Pan and Tilt Incorporated, and even a focus ring for the camera, and to take some really cool videos of some of the products that we’re developing. So we got it in. And I used to have a photography company on the side with a friend of mine. So I dive into it, because I love this stuff. And it doesn’t work, I can’t get it to keep the positions that had been programmed into it. And I spent hours trying to get this thing working and it just it wouldn’t work. So I feel very embarrassed by this now because this is like troubleshooting one on one. But I didn’t break it down into its constituent parts. I just tried to make everything work together. And it wouldn’t and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. But finally, as I wised up and broke it down into its constituent parts. All right, let’s just try the pan. Let’s just try the swing, let’s just try the tilt, let’s just try the focus, I finally was able to figure out where the problem was, diagnose it and get replacement parts for those axes of motion. So that was a good reminder to me. All right, let me break it down into all the individual constituent parts. Don’t try and solve the the system as a whole. It’s exactly like what you were saying, Jon, you know, break it down into those individual parts, figure out where the problems are, and then attack that specific problem.
Jon Rennie 09:31
Yeah, and I think and I would say that the previous management was always trying to solve the, the there was a lot of finger pointing in the early days, you know, and so when we came to it, we looked at it more from a data standpoint, like okay, what does the data say? What are what are we being point what what does the data point us to that needs to be fixed versus Oh, it’s engineering fault. Oh, it’s marketing’s fault. Oh, it’s, you know, the manufacturing teams fault. So I think one of the nice things about six eight and once you get away from that of the finger pointing game, you get into the data and you start trying to uncover what’s really wrong, what’s really going on here. Like looking at the data, not looking at looking at the process, not looking at the people. And I think that’s a valuable lesson there in anyone who’s doing, you know, manufacturing work or engineering work is focused on the process. Yeah, there are people problems, too, but a lot of times it’s a process problem.
Aaron Moncur 10:23
Sure, absolutely. Great point. Well, in in 2002, you were recruited to basically turn around a company both from a operational and financial standpoint, to 200 million in sales, 600 employees, so like, you know, a pretty good sized operation here. That seems like a big undertaking. Do you remember? Where did you start? You know, how did you even approach a problem of that size?
Jon Rennie 10:50
Yeah, so there was kind of more of a real leadership situation, I actually left the I was in the electrical industry, I wanted the welding industry, and we were doing welding consumables for a large global company. And so I, you know, I mostly had led technical teams, or, you know, our technical manufacturer, or technical teams, most of my career, even in the Navy, I was leading technical teams. So, but here was a case of, yeah, there was technology there, you know, our project products were very highly engineered, but it was a people issue, I mean, just to fix the problems that exist in these manufacturing, there was two manufacturing plants, and to fix the problems, we had people problems, and we had, we had a long standing union that had been, you know, at each of the plants, they had a very negative attitude towards management and us in them attitude that existed in the in the operation. And so we were trying to bring lean manufacturing concepts to, to both of these plants, and also try to build it build relationships between management and the workforce that had not existed. So it was a, it was a leadership challenge, probably less of a technical challenge. Although, at some at one point, in the process, the union at one of the plants went on strike. And so the salary people had to operate the plant for for a time. So it became an engineering problem as we tried to. Okay, how do we run this manufacturing equipment that we don’t want to never run except for the the experienced employees that hourly employees in the plant? So that’s probably the only technical side of it, but as much a more of a people challenge? And it was, it was a cultural challenge as well. I think for years, there was animosity between management and the workers, and they just didn’t see eye to eye and I think it was really, it was the biggest thing was building bridges. How do we build bridges between these teams, and just give you an example. So we were studying lean manufacturing, in the welding manufacturing process, and the best plant in the world in our company, was in South Korea. So I took the union president and the vice president with me, just me and those two hourly employees, we went to South Korea together, to see what the best plant in the world was doing and how we could learn to do it in our plant. So that’s an example of it was a people problem. And I was trying to solve it using people and trying to build bridges to resolve and, you know, these this long standing animosity between management and in the workers. And yeah, I would say this is we made a lot of progress. But you know, this, these, these plants had been there for 40 years. And so it was hard to this was a five year process. I think we made a lot of progress, but you know, it’s just was, it was it’s hard. It’s difficult when you have 30 years of history that you’re trying to turn around. So, yeah, that’s one of the biggest leaders leadership challenges in my career for sure.
Aaron Moncur 13:57
Do you recall any of the other efforts that you embarked on to try and bridge that gap between you know this this cultural divide that existed?
Jon Rennie 14:06
Yeah, I would say my first manufacturing plant I was 32 when I got my first plant, and I remember I was the youngest plant in that the history of that manufacturing operation. And I remember thinking, when I went there, I noticed that was that us and them mentality between the hourly workers and the salary workers, not so much management but so the the salaried people all there were two locations in this this business, this business that had that has all the salaried people and then all the hourly people around the shop floor, and I noticed that that there was no common there was no common places where people got together so the hours people did the hourly things, the salary people did the salary things and I remember thinking this was nothing like what life was on a submarine right on a submarine, we were all in one metal tube, we were all in it together. So there was no us in them, you know, we so as as an officer, for example, we wore the same uniform slept in the same side, same size bunk, we ate the same food, we when, when things went bad, we all it was bad for all of us, right? So we were all in it together. And what I realized in a lot of a lot of companies is that there’s an OS in them that that certain people are treated differently based on their position. And so one of the one of the ways I picked to try to bridge that gap was a thing I called Fridays on the floor. So the first Friday of every month, I actually started working on the shop floor, you know, the show Undercover Boss, right? It’s very similar to that only this was long before this was before undercover boss ever came up. But I would go and work for four hours every Friday on a different place on the shop floor every, every Friday, first Friday of every month. And so I remember just, we, I built relationships with the team, I saw what was really going wrong in the process of the sale, what the procedures are wrong, the tooling was wrong. And so we saw I saw all the problems from my hourly employees perspective. Well, I remember trying to meet with my management team. After those sessions, I bring him in for lunch night, I’d say this is all the things I learned I’d go and go. And they didn’t understand what I was seeing. They didn’t they didn’t get it, they didn’t have the same passion I did. And I realized at that point that I really needed to get them out there. So we made this mandatory for all managers to work for hours on the shop floor every first Friday of every month. And then when I started, we come back into the conference room, I’d bring in pizza, whatever. And we would just go over all the things that we learned. And we began to see what our employees were seeing. And they began to see what we were seeing. And so we communicated, they understood what we were doing in the offices, we understood what they were doing on the shop floor, were able to solve a lot of problems because we had a common view of the business versus an us and them view of the business. And I think a lot of cases, I see management teams trying to solve problems from from conference rooms or from offices or from and they’re not going you know, they’re not using gamba. They’re not going to the place where it’s made and actually seeing how it’s done and listening to the employees and hearing their real problems. So I think, and that’s something I did throughout my career was this Fridays on the floor as a way to bridge the gap. And to build relationships between the management teams and the in this in the people on the shop floor.
Aaron Moncur 17:16
That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. We’ve done a few similar things. I, everyone at pipeline has the option to work remotely or in the office depending on what’s most productive, that the core value here is governed by productivity, not bureaucracy. So if it’s more productive, to work at home, work from home, if it’s more productive to work in the office work in the office. As a result, I’m the migratory. I do a few days here in the office and a few days at home most weeks, but I don’t have an office here at at the office, right, I just sit out in the open space with everyone else. And I have a desk that I usually set up. But sometimes I’ll sit at another desk. And it’s been invaluable, just being in the same space as the rest of the team. Because you organically start to hear things and observe things that you wouldn’t hear or observe otherwise. And I think there’s no substitute for, you know, being on the floor, so to speak with with the rest of the team. And then another thing that we’ve done is is weekly team lunch. So every Wednesday, there’s a standing invitation for anyone who wants to come to the office and join us for lunch. And that’s been a great way also for just everyone to get in the same room and talk about things that aren’t necessarily work related and get to know each other. And so those have been a couple of useful things that that we’ve done to develop culture here. Well, let’s see you you spent the early part of your career as a Navy captain on a nuclear submarine. What tell us a little bit about that? I mean, what’s it like it’s a to be on a nuclear submarine and then be to to be one of the leaders there. How does that translate into engineering leadership or just business leadership in general?
Jon Rennie 18:59
Yeah, I think, you know, typical day on a submarine, it’s just like a typical day at work, right? You get used to your surroundings, right? I mean, just like when you come into your first day of work, everything’s different, right? There’s noises and smells. And you know, I don’t know where the coffee pot is, I don’t know where the bathroom is, you have to figure that out when you first get on board. But the difference is, is that they lock the door and nobody goes home. So you are stuck with an I say stuck in a good way. You’re stuck with the crew that you deploy with. So you’re gone for, in our case, three months at a time with that crew and there’s no one that nobody’s leaving, and nobody’s coming you it’s just you in that crew, and you have a mission to accomplish and you want to get everybody home safely. And everybody has that same vision in mind we have a common vision. So complete the mission Get home safely. That’s that’s that’s it’s a common that everybody and we don’t have to write it on a board when I’ve talked about what our vision statement is. Everybody knows what it is, you know, do your nuclear deterrent and then get home safe Fleet that’s everybody understood it. So, but what’s different in what’s unique about life on a submarine, especially in a leadership role is there’s no going home after a bad day and having a beer, there’s no saying, You know what I’m going to, I’m going to sleep in this weekend, I’ve had a rough week, you’re in it 24/7 For three months at a time, I was Mr. Rennie, for that whole time or Lieutenant Randy that whole time. And I never heard my first name, except for my few peers that were on board would would say my first name. So you talk about being on stage leadership is being on stage, right. So your people are watching you and seeing what you’re going to say when and you know, just trying to see everything about you. And we were on stage 24/7. So there was no break. And it was very interesting to be in an environment like that. And as I mentioned earlier, we are all in it together. So there were no special privileges for for the officers, you know, there was 15 officers and in a crew of 155 140 140 sailors and 15 officers, and that was it. And we were we held each other accountable for the success of that operation. And one of the things I learned through that process is the most junior sailor was critical to our mission, right. In fact, the most dangerous job we did on the submarine and you might laugh at this was to was to shoot trash out of the bottom of the submarine. So we would come out compact our trash. And we would we had a small almost like a torpedo tube and we would fire it down throughout the bottom of the ship. And the typically the guy who smashed trash and pack the packed in the what’s called a trash disposal unit TDU, the guy that operated the TDU is typically the most junior sailor on the boat, who was in charge of putting a hole at the bottom of the summary. So and I think the valuable lesson there is you don’t see that much in, in corporate America, at least my experience is that we tend to the junior people, we don’t have a hold in high esteem, right? Well, let’s just outsource our call center, let’s just outsource manufacturing, let’s outsource. We don’t need to pay for all these hourly employees. Right. So we don’t have that same passion towards considering our most junior employees critical to our mission and on a submarine it is you’re all in it together. The other thing is unique about a submarine, you know, unlike any other military, you know, unit is that if something goes wrong, it’s not like some will survive and others will die. We all die, we all perish. If there’s a fire, we all die. If there’s flooding, we all die. So we’re in it together. And we have to hold each other accountable. There’s a there’s a shared level of responsibility and accountability that is really unique to that environment. And I think if you take that, and you put that into real business, right, and you’re you’re both you share that accountability, responsibility for the business, and even your most junior sailor is important, even your most junior employees important. You can get some really good results is what I learned through through my experience in running businesses.
Aaron Moncur 23:11
Complete tangent question here just on the subject of submarines. How long do you stay underwater at a time? I mean, I assume you have to come up for air at some point. But how long? Can you stay unknown.
Jon Rennie 23:24
I mean, if you’ve got a lot of engineers listening in, you just you could totally geek out on this we make up we make our own water. And then we use the water to make our own oxygen. So we really a nuclear reactor that can run for 25 years. And we make our own water and oxygen from from the sea. And I had no idea. Yeah, absolutely. And so we are self sustainable. And we stay under for those 90 days. We do not see sunlight. Really? Yeah. Well, in our case, the crews were all male. So we used to say there’s no sunlight, no beard, no pizza for 90 days. 90 days.
Aaron Moncur 24:02
90 days underwater in red light submarine. That’s that is intense. Okay.
Jon Rennie 24:09
Yeah. And when the lights go out, when things happen and the lights go out, it’s the darkest place in the world, I can guarantee you that. We all have Maglite on our belt because it is a very dark place. And by the way, if you hit your head on high HDHD steel or you know Hy 80 steel, you’re gonna you’re gonna feel it so
Aaron Moncur 24:28
you’ll feel it. Yeah, that plays a big bump. Well, I’m gonna take a very short break here, share with the listeners that Team pipeline.us is where you can learn more about how we help medical device and other product engineering or manufacturing teams develop turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines to characterize inspect, assemble, manufacture and perform verification testing on your devices. We’re speaking with Jon Rennie today, Jon Customer Success has been one of your obsessions throughout your career, what what are one or two of the most important actions that you’ve had your teams take over the years to ensure that you’re helping your customers succeed?
Jon Rennie 25:15
Well, it’s interesting. It’s why I formed my own company. Seven years ago, now will be seven years in January, I started a manufacturing company called peak demand. And one of the things that we saw a lot of frustration with customers dealing with because I work for the big players in our industry. And what what ended up happening, and this is typical, with big companies is they chase elephants, right? So they chase the big customers, they want those big deals, you know, the salesman get a big bonus, check the VPS get a big pat on the back when they land those big elephants, right. But what we said was, our industry is filled with a lot of rabbits, I guess that’s why it’s not elephants, I guess a lot of smaller customers that are generally ignored by our industry. So in so we have made our point to take care of the smaller customers in our industry. So we’re selling to electric utilities. So every small municipal that has an electric utility, they typically have a small in a small electric department that handles the power in their in their city. And they try to do it all these these people that run these businesses are Jack’s of all trades. And so they need technical help and technical teams that can help them solve problems. Whereas the big utilities, the investor owned utilities, have teams of engineers. So whereas the big companies focus on the large IOUs, the largest investor owned utilities, we’ve actually found, it’s, it’s the small utilities that really need the technical help and support. So we try to do that. And we try to give them basically, world class customer support, even though they’re a smaller customer. And I think, you know, as a small business, we can do that. And I think our customers really appreciate that. So example of this. So I travel the country, and I go to these, what they call meter schools, and this is this is where they’re training their meter technicians, these are the people that are doing the power meters, in businesses and homes, in their, in their district or in their, with their customers, right. And so there’s a lot of lot of technology that’s involved in that. So I personally go and I train those meter techs in how to operate the type of equipment that we manufacture. And they really appreciate that because, you know, the big companies don’t take the time to go out there and train them and teach them. So we are actually building customer relationships through helping them with technical training, and we do it for free. And typically, they come to us for the product afterwards. They’re like, Well, you’re the expert, we want, we want the product from you guys. And so we’ve, in fact, it was interesting, because when COVID hit everything shut all these meters, schools around the country shut down. And we were like, alright, well, let’s we’re gonna do virtual meter school. So we started doing virtual training around the country. And every time I set up a course, I mean, we would sell, we weren’t even selling it, we had a limit of 200 people, and we’d have 200 people book it within like, two hours. And so we became, we became, we built a reputation on being experts in this field. And the big companies had much more resources and many more experts and people than we did, but yet, we were the ones who, who spent time teaching the technicians and spend time teaching the technical side of things. So I think we built customer intimacy through that kind of a process through teaching and training and support that the big guys don’t
Aaron Moncur 28:37
do. Fascinating. That’s very cool. Let’s go back to your you’re not necessarily your submarine days, but you have all these cool analogies, having lived and worked in a submarine that you’ve carried over into engineering and business. Let’s see how, how can business leaders run their company more like a submarine captain? This is one that you gave me. And I thought what an interesting question to ask. So let’s explore that one. Yeah, so
Jon Rennie 29:09
one thing about a submarine captain is is, is once you shut the door, you’re completely responsible for for for that ship as it’s out at sea. Right? So you’re, you’re the commanding officer. And one of the things is, is that you make sure that every one of your team members are fully qualified to do their job. This is an important thing the captain did. So he made sure that everybody went through a qualification process. So what didn’t matter if you were an officer enlisted, you had to go through a qualification process. In the case of an officer, it takes almost a year to get fully certified on every watch station on the ship. And what he did was he used more senior people to train the more junior people. So it was an apprentice kind of relationship. And so he would make sure that every person is qualified in that organization. Now think about it. Most training in most companies is For at best, you know, I remember when I first showed up after I left the military I went to work for I went to ABB right away. I was a design engineer in the in the design department. And I remember I got a cubicle, and I got a stapler. And I didn’t have a computer because they’re working to get me a computer. It took me a three to four weeks before they got me my computer. I didn’t know what to do. No one told me what to do. I just sort of sat in a cubicle. And I finally I figured out I started talking to other engineers, like what do you guys do here? What? What can I do to help? I was it was zero training. It was it was like learn on your own, you know, and, and that’s just not the way it’s done on a submarine, we have to make sure and again, I was telling you about. We are accountable to each other, we are responsible, we share this responsibility and the vulnerability. So we had to make sure that he’s everybody was qualified. And so that’s one thing I Captain does make sure as a team is trained and qualified and is competent, to be able to do the jobs that they’re in. And I think that’s a big thing that we can all learn from that from submarine captains.
Aaron Moncur 31:01
Very cool. All right, how about this one? How is firefighting on a submarine? A powerful analogy for engineering and business leaders?
Jon Rennie 31:09
Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean, spent talking about engineering. So the analogy is this is on a submarine. Fire is one of the more more more dangerous things that can happen, right? Because the air can quickly you know, become toxic and you can you basically knock knock people out, damage equipment, sink, sick the submarine very quickly. So we are trained, every every everybody on board of submarines is a trained firefighter. I am a trained firefighter. It sounds funny. But we all are trained firefighters and we are trained to ignore our instincts and run to the fire. So think about it in like an office, right? You hear the fire alarm goes off what happens? Y’all leave, right we all we headed for the exits, right and we let professionals come in and put out the fire we let you know the firemen come and they go in the building, they find out where the problem is they put out the fire? Well, there’s no 911 on a submarine, we have to solve the problem. So we were trained to run towards the problem run towards the fire and put it out before it gets bigger, right? Because it can be it can be devastating to the submarine. The same analogy goes with business, right? When we have a problem, no matter how small it is, if we don’t run towards it and address it, while it’s early, we’re going to have to deal with that as it gets bigger. And he could be so big that it puts our company out of business. And there’s plenty of examples like that. But I’ll give you one quick example. I took over a business. And I was the new general manager. And I started realizing there was a high level of warranty costs and a high level of customer complaints and a high level of customer concessions on this one product line. And I began to investigate what was going on. It turns out, we had these switches that were corroding in the field. They were they were rusting out. And so we were constantly replacing them. And the more and more I dug into it, I found out that we had actually the company had acquired a smaller company it took they took that product that the smaller company had and put it into one of our products. And turns out it was never rated for outdoor use. It was a switch and they put it in an outdoor configuration. And so guess what there were there were parts on that switch that were rusting and corroding. And so I ended up my first year at that business, I called it the great apology tour, I had to go around the country and apologize and replace a lot of these failed switches in like really major utilities around the country. As it turned out, the management team knew about the problem, right? They knew it was a problem. But they kept looking at what it would cost to actually redesign it and it was very expensive. And then to replace it with a new product was also very expensive. So they just didn’t see a good way to solve the problem. So they just kept shipping the switches with this defect. And so when I came on board, I found the problem and I was like, shoot, we didn’t run to the fire, we let this fire burn out of control. And I ended up having to go around apologizing. And my decision was, we decided we’re going to kill the product line. So we had to discontinue that product, because the cost of a redesign was far more than any future profits we could get from it. So we ended up having to kill the product line. So I ended up having to put out a very large fire because the management team pre previous did not put out those small fires and address the problem as you see them. So that’s the analogy, run to the fire put it out before it gets bigger and hurts your business.
Aaron Moncur 34:33
Something else I really like about that story is there’s usually more than two choices. Oftentimes we get stuck between Should I do it or shouldn’t I do it right. Your choice was Should we continue shipping defective product or should we spend the money to redesign it, which is going to be super expensive? Well, you came up with a third option. We’ll just discontinued the product altogether. That’s great. Yeah, love that.
Jon Rennie 34:54
Well, it wasn’t popular, but it wasn’t a problem. But it was hopefully that that made Since when you put all the numbers together, and and I ended up having to walk all our customers through how we would handle their warranty, and we would we’d stand behind the product, we would continue to fix them as they as they broke. But it was a very, very tough situation to be put into because people hadn’t hadn’t taken care of the problem.
Aaron Moncur 35:17
Yeah. Okay. Well, what are a few of the best ways that you’ve learned that engineering leaders listening to this can can use to increase engagement within their teams? Yeah,
Jon Rennie 35:33
especially I’m gonna say, you know, talking to the engineers that are listening in, I mean, yeah, we all right, there’s some characteristics of engineers, we tend to be a little bit introverted. And I would say that I was probably introverted in my early days. But I think we and we also have been through some tough training, right? So we know some things that other people don’t know. So what’s the problem with that? Well, we can be tend to we tend to we, we could tend to be loners, and we can tend to be thinking that we have all the answers as engineers, right. So we have to be careful to avoid that, because one of the things I’ve learned is that even when you’re dealing with technical products, sometimes the best ideas come from people without degrees. And I think that’s a hard thing for us to realize. Sometimes it’s it’s good to turn the ego off, right, and turn, turn on that emotional intelligence and get it get out there and talk to people listen to their, listen to the people listen to the ideas from other people. Because I think sometimes the best ideas come from the people who’ve been looking at the product for years, and not you as an engineer who understand maybe the technical side of it. But listening to somebody that’s been touching and feeling and operating this thing for years, they tend to have these really creative ideas that you would not have thought of as an engineer. So I think we got to sometimes put our egos aside, and we have to be more, a bit more social and be willing to listen to ideas that are maybe not from a person with an engineering degree.
Aaron Moncur 37:05
Yeah, that makes me think of an experience we had recently with one of our customers, we were on a call with our customer, two of them, were on this, this call with us. And they were actually walking us through one of their processes that we needed to implement in this product. And they were saying the same thing, both of these individuals, but one of them was just a jerk, you know, he was tactless and, and everything he said, had this air of you guys are idiots, I know exactly what I’m doing, which was true. He didn’t know what he was doing. But just the way he would phrase things, you know, just it made us feel small and not in not wanting to be engaged in the process. And then the other guy who was in agreement with everything that the first individual had said, but he phrased things so much more nicely. And and I don’t even know how to say it. But he was just so much more pleasant to communicate with, you know, he was a lot more humble. He didn’t come across as arrogant. And we were immediately drawn to him, we wanted to engage with him. And it just you know that that difference. They were again, both saying the same things. Their message to us was 100% in alignment, but one of the guys was just arrogant and kind of a jerk about it. And the other guy was super nice and helpful and welcoming. So I think just you know that the act of being nice and decent to people is a huge part of creating engagement in any team.
Jon Rennie 38:41
Yeah, I think so. I would say one other thing, too, is, you know, as engineer, we tend to know the answer sometimes. And we would jump to give the answer. I think sometimes it’s great to let our people explore a little bit, and find the answer on their own so that they have a chance to learn they have a chance to have ownership of a process instead of jumping in and giving them the straight answer. And I found that especially later in my career, I have young engineers working for me, and they’ve got this great idea and they want to do it and like my first thought is, I’ve tried that before, that doesn’t work. But if you jump on that and you don’t let them explore and learn and learn that lesson, like oh, wow, that doesn’t really work very well. Then, then, you know, you take away that chance for them to learn. So sometimes I let people go with something even though I may know the answer already. Just so they can explore and learn on their own and have their own learning experience so that I don’t take that away from them. It’s hard to sometimes go we want to jump and we got the answer. You’re like No, no, no, just, you know, let them figure it out.
Aaron Moncur 39:45
How do you set up some boundaries, you know, some bumper lanes so to speak, so that yes, you give the engineer some room to go off and explore and fail a little bit but but not so far that you know, the end result is just catastrophic.
Jon Rennie 40:00
Well, you just nailed it. It’s control failure. I mean, that’s something that they taught us in the military. So we would, we would stand these under, under instruction watches, and they would throw every casualty at us. And there was always a senior watchstanders standing next to us, and they let us fail, they let us completely fall on our face. And then we stopped the drill and we take it what happened? What did you learn? What could you have done differently, and we had these powerful learning sessions because we failed because the emotion of failing is very powerful. It’s very important, we have to fail if we’re going to learn sometimes, especially I will say this as engineers are stubborn, and we have to fail sometimes just to say, okay, all right, that didn’t work. So I think it’s, it’s putting people in a situation when they can have control failure. So giving them a project, maybe as a new as a new leader, or a new project leader is maybe keeping a close eye on them as they’re going through it. So it’s sort of mentor relationship to let them fail, give them some string, let them, let them make some mistakes, but be there to help them if they do get. So it’s not catastrophic to the organization. So especially when it’s a new people doing something they’ve never done before. I do like to do that to take new people and put them in experiences they’ve never done before, for those valuable learning lessons. But when I do it, I do it under close watch, I want to make sure that I’m there if something goes wrong.
Aaron Moncur 41:17
Yeah, mentored experiences, I think those are very powerful and effective. And teaching people how to do things instead of just dropping them in the deep end. Even if there’s an SOP or some kind of instructions for you hear it, go do it. But if you can walk the hold their hand a little bit and kind of walk them through it and be there with him. That’s, that’s very, very effective. Yes. Let’s see you you have been involved with a number of different product companies and have have been involved with the launches and sustaining engineering work of a number of different products. For those companies out there listening to this right now who maybe don’t have established product lines yet, but are just starting to, to launch maybe their first couple of products. What What advice do you have for them? What are some of the roadblocks that a new product company might not even see coming that that we should be preparing for?
Jon Rennie 42:14
Well, I would say this advice is probably the most important advice that I that I’ve I read and I put in place in my company has a new company developing our first ever products and this new company going to market is if is this is if you’re not embarrassed by the first iteration of your product, you’re not moving fast enough. So staying get your products in front of your customers eyes, even if it’s not perfect, too many companies will waste a lot of money making a perfect product, and then they end up having to have no customers for it. So I know we went to in peak demand my company, we went to a trade show a year into the launch of our company and we had a really crappy version of our product. I say that now. But we didn’t know at the time, we thought it was pretty good. Your customers are gonna love it. And we went to a tradeshow we just got totally trashed by everyone who walked by. And they told us how this wouldn’t work. You can’t do this, this is wrong. And those were valuable learning tools, valuable feedback early in the process. So we said, Oh, wow. And then we also met a lot of people that had that said, it, here’s some ideas, if you do it this way, no one else is doing it this way. Try it this way. So they actually came to us with feedback and ideas that would make our make our product better than anybody else in the market. So what I would say is get out to the get out to your customers early on with with early versions of your product so that you get a chance to get that valuable feedback. And sometimes it’s you’re gonna look back and say, Okay, that was a little bit embarrassing. That was, we were that was a juvenile product that wasn’t ready for market. But that’s okay. Because you get that valuable learning, you get that feedback, and you build some relationships. And in our case, we build a lot of relationships with the people that use our product, the linemen, for example, in one of our product lines, and they gave us so many ideas to make our product better than the competitors. Because we were the first people to actually listen to their their ideas. You know, just simple things like we’re up in a bucket truck, and we’re trying to tighten this bolt, it’d be great if there was an arrow engraved in the product to know how we’re supposed to wrap the fuse link around this one part. And so we so now we tooled a part that has an arrow to tell them which way to wrap the, the fuse link is simple thing like that no one else does. But we did it because it was based on feedback from end users. And now people want that in their product, because they know that we’re the only ones that offer that, you know, that feature. So I say it’s really important to get your product out early and listen to feedback.
Aaron Moncur 44:42
That’s great. I liked how you phrase that a lot. If you’re not a little embarrassed by your first launch, then you’re not moving fast enough. That’s wise words. All right. Well, Jon, is there anything else that we should talk about that we haven’t hit on yet?
Jon Rennie 44:58
No, I mean, I just think You know, I’ve been doing this a while I’ve been leading for three decades, and I’ve been in technical leading technical teams, technical companies, and I think we, we tend to put a lot of value in our plans and our products in their in our mission statements and our vision statements, I just want to go back to the the idea that leadership is, is a people business, it’s all about people. And if we can, if we if we understand that it’s people that are going to bring our products to market as people that are going to grow our business as people that are going to improve our customer relationships, if we understand that we need people, then we’re going to understand that we’ve got to learn some people skills along the way, as well. So engineers, we’re gonna have to learn some people skills along the way.
Aaron Moncur 45:42
Absolutely. I recently read the book of joy, which is a discussion between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu, and it was just just really wonderful book. But to me, the message at the end was just Joy’s about people. And so really, we shouldn’t be investing our time and our resources, whether it’s from a commercial standpoint, or just a personal standpoint in in people, you know, more more so than in widgets or processes are, I mean, those things are important as well, but without the people, they don’t mean much. Yeah, absolutely. Well, Jon, thank you again, so much, for sure. Appreciate you being with us today. How can people get in touch with you?
Jon Rennie 46:28
Yeah, everything is on my website. It’s Jonsrennie.com. And you can find links to my social media there, links to my books and links to my podcast, deep leadership.
Aaron Moncur 46:38
Wonderful, wonderful. Jon, thank you so much, for sure. appreciate you spending some time with us today.
Jon Rennie 46:43
Thank you. I really enjoyed it.
Aaron Moncur 46:48
I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design, and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at Team pipeline.us. Thanks for listening
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