Podcast Masterminds in Maintenance

S2:E8 Making Maintenance and Reliability Fun with Michelle Ledet Henley

Ryan Chan

Michelle Ledet Henley is the Developer and Facilitator at The Manufacturing Game, a company that creates interactive simulations and workshops to help their clients achieve their reliability goals.


In this week’s episode of Masterminds in Maintenance, we are so excited to have Michelle Ledet Henley, Developer and Facilitator at The Manufacturing Game, on the show! Michelle shares with us her journey into the industry, the thought process and inspiration behind the development of The Manufacturing Game’s board games and simulations, as well as the importance of focusing on relationships and connections within an organization when it comes to improving reliability. Listen today!

Episode Show Notes

  • How often time should be dedicated into improving processes
  • The development of The Manufacturing Game (TMG)
  • How companies can improve engagement

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00:02 Ryan Chan: Welcome to Masterminds in Maintenance, a podcast for those with new ideas in maintenance. I’m your host, Ryan, I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. Each week, I’ll be meeting with a guest who’s had an idea for how to shake things up in the maintenance and reliability industry. Sometimes the idea failed, sometimes it made their business more successful, and other times their idea revolutionized an entire industry. Today, I’m super excited, we’ve got Michelle Ledet Henley on the show. Michelle is a developer and facilitator at The Manufacturing Game, a company that creates interactive simulations and workshops to help their clients achieve their reliability goals. Welcome to the show, Michelle. I’m super excited to have you as guest here on the podcast.

00:39 Michelle Ledet Henley: Thanks Ryan, I’m really excited to be a part of it. Thanks for inviting me.

00:43 RC: Well, hey, what we always do, is kick off this podcast by you sharing a little bit more about your background and how you got started in this field of maintenance and reliability.

00:53 MH: Well, my story starts with good old-fashioned nepotism. My dad is a chemical engineer and he worked for DuPont for 27 years in various roles in various locations and his final role was in the Houston area, working with the regional team to improve reliability at multiple sites along the Gulf Coast. And about that same time, I had just moved back to Texas, I was doing some contract computer programming work and I had dinner with my folks one night and was telling them about this new software that had come out, and this is going to date me a bit, but it was a software that ran on the PC that would allow you to get data off of mainframe systems and create sort of user-friendly front-ends to do that, get that data into the PC and then be able to do things with it there. So, as I’m talking about this, my dad’s eyes kind of light up because they had run into some problems so they wanted a way to be able to track their improvements.

01:45 MH: The problem is all the data was locked up in their mainframe CMMS system. And the DuPont IT folks were backlogged, so they weren’t gonna be able to help them. So, he saw this as maybe a good way to be able to get the data out on a timely basis so that they could see if they were making improvements. So a week later, I got a contract with DuPont to do this programming work, I pull their data, I put together the charts and reports that they need, and as I’m doing this, I get really excited because their improvements are fantastic. Really amazing the results that they’ve got and so at that point, I’m hooked on reliability and reliability improvements and how it works and kind of the rest was history. That’s how I got started with it.

02:23 RC: Wow, what an awesome journey, I mean, starting with your parents. And Michelle, I’ve got a lot to relate to that story too actually. I was a chemical engineer. My first job was actually working a company that was spun out of DuPont Chemicals so I completely understand you. And actually, that’s one of the reasons why we created UpKeep was because of working at this company spun out of DuPont Chemicals.

02:48 MH: Awesome.

02:48 RC: Lot of similarities there. [chuckle] So I know that you’ve dedicated a big majority of your career towards The Manufacturing Game and I’m really fascinated by it. You’re really dedicating your company towards making reliability fun, engaging. Could you tell us a little bit more about The Manufacturing Game and what you’ve done and what you’ve created over the last 25 years?

03:13 MH: It started with my dad’s work in DuPont. He had gone on a benchmarking trip around the world to look at DuPont plants as well as non-DuPont plants and got super excited, he came back and tried to share what he had learned and nobody cared. And so then he said, “I need to distill the data down.” Typical engineer approach, right? So he and his team start doing this system dynamics modeling to take all the benchmark data and get it down to a few key points and that was when they realized the power of defect elimination, so that kinda was his thing and they were excited and they tried to share that with other people at the sites and nobody cared. And so they had a brainstorming meeting with the team, they said, “We’re so excited about this. How do we get other people excited?” And so one of the guys on the team said, “You know, to learn how to do system dynamics programming.” We actually went to MIT and played a board game called “the beer game”. It’s a pretty famous simulation, it involves no actual drinking of beer, it’s about a supply chain distribution system. And they said, you know, we actually got to play this board game and that’s how we learned, not by somebody telling us about system dynamics, but getting a chance to experience it for ourselves. So maybe we gotta take our computer model and convert it into a board game so that people can actually generate their own experience rather than us just trying to tell them about our experience.

04:34 RC: Yeah.

04:34 MH: So it was shortly after that meeting, they put together the first game board which was just butcher paper and post-it notes, and magic markers, and it kind of went from there. My dad eventually retired from DuPont and started offering the game externally. So he spent about 20 years with a working retirement, his second career, and then in 2014, he actually retired so he’s now getting to just enjoy life and not have to work during retirement. But I’ve continued it on and we’re now on the fifth version of the game, and always looking for ways to improve and do a better job of getting the message across.

05:09 RC: That’s awesome. So what I’m hearing is it’s all about engagement because we could have great methodologies, but if no one’s engaged, if no one’s actually absorbing all of this information, then it doesn’t really matter. What are some of the tools, techniques that you use within The Manufacturing Game to really engage people to get better to learn and improve their own plants?

05:31 MH: A big part of it is just creating a learning environment. So putting people in a situation where they have a chance to experiment and try some things, and some of those things are gonna work and some of them aren’t, which I think ties in well to your podcast, right? That sometimes we learn from our lack of success as much as we learn from our successes. But it creates the safe environment for them to try some things and see what works and what doesn’t work. And one of the things that we saw from the benchmark is that a benchmark tells you what things look like when you get to the spot you wanna be in, it doesn’t tell you how you get there. And so by having a simulation where you get a chance to play it out, you get a chance to try those things and have the stumbles and regroup and move on, and most importantly, you’re doing it as a team. So it’s not one individual, saying, “This is how it’s gonna be, and I’m gonna do it,” it’s you’ve gotta have the ideas, but like you said, you also have to get other people to help you implement it, ’cause you can’t do it alone. And that’s a big part of the process is getting those folks to be interested and excited about doing it, not just willing to maliciously comply but excited about actually working with you to get those improvement.

06:41 RC: And do you have any suggestions for our listeners? Maybe they work at a plant, and they’re facing the same things that you’re mentioning which is engagement from the rest of the crew. Do you have any suggestions, tips, advice for them to really engage more people to push and improve their plants and facilities?

07:03 MH: Yeah, a couple of things, one is come up with a simple message, so if you get too into the weeds and again, from an engineering perspective, engineers love to do that. The deeper we can get in the weeds, the happier that we are, but that loses a lot of people. So kind of coming up with the simple message you wanna get across, the simple things that you want them to do and then the other part is really important, which is come up with action come up with specific things that they can do in order to help with your implementation, even if they’re very small things, but I think people get more engaged when they have a role to play versus just you telling them about what you’re trying to do.

07:40 RC: Absolutely, and do you have any examples of what some of these even small things are that really engage the rest of the crew?

07:48 MH: One of the things that we do in our workshops at the end, so we go through The Manufacturing Game simulation. But again, at that point, you really haven’t changed anything about the work. So if that’s all you do, is the simulation you’re not done. So we have on the back-end of our workshops, what we call action teams. So it’s getting together small cross-functional teams, three to six people, we want people from operations and maintenance and other functions as well, and they pick a real world issue that they wanna go out and solve in the next 90 days.

08:16 MH: And so we work with our clients to come up with really tight boundaries around what they’re willing to let them work on because once they set those boundaries, we say, you’ve gotta give them freedom within that. You can’t go in and micro-manage and tell them what they can and can’t work on. But you know, you can set your boundaries, as tight as you want them to be, so you can set how much time they’re allowed to spend on it, how much money they’re allowed to spend, what areas are okay to work on, what areas aren’t. But once you set those boundaries, you’ve gotta give them the freedom, because that’s where they get the ownership.

08:43 RC: I can totally see that as such a great engaging way to not just engage your crew, but also push for better improvements around the plant. I’m curious, do you have any success stories? What have been some of the most amazing success stories that have come out of this 90-day cross-functional group that kind of sets limited boundaries on?

09:04 MH: The company agreed to share it, so I can talk about it. But there was a group that was initially tasked with improving morale, in the oil movements and shipments area at this refinery. Mostly frontline guys are like, “I don’t know about improving morale, that’s not really in my wheel house.


09:20 MH: So I tell you what. We have an issue in our area that every summer, the butane sphere gets really hot. And it gets so hot that we actually have to open the relief valve just to keep the pressure down. And so, I’m scared every summer that we’re just… That’s not gonna be enough and that we’re gonna wind up having an explosion. And so he said, if we could eliminate the threat of the explosion, that would improve my morale. I don’t know about anybody else’s, but it’ll improve mine. So they took that on. And again, they have pretty tight boundaries around what they were allowed to do, so they couldn’t spend more than $5,000 to make the improvement.

09:54 MH: So there had been for several years, a proposal to insulate the sphere to keep the temperature down but that was like a $400,000 project, so they weren’t gonna do that. So we gotta be creative. So let’s go take a look. And when they went out there they said, one of the issues is there’s this cooler on here and it gets super hot, and so it probably is undersized. So they recruited an engineer on to the team and said, “Yeah, sure enough, this cooler is undersized, and so we need to replace it.” And somebody else on the team said, “You know, I don’t know if we have enough money to go buy a new one, but there’s a project that we were gonna do that was abandoned. And we had a cooler that we had ordered for and it already come in and it’s sitting out in the boneyard, maybe that would work.

10:39 MH: So they go get that sort of abandoned part, take it in, take a look at it, sure enough it’s gonna work. They do what they needed to do to get it installed, brings the temperature down on butane sphere and they were able to close the relief valve. And so everybody’s happy and comfortable.

10:54 MH: So at the same time, there was another group that was measuring loss to the flare. And they suddenly see this big drop in loss of gas to the flare. And they do a calculation, and it turns out that every summer for the past seven years, they had been flaring one and a half million dollars worth of butane because of this tiny little problem that for under five grand, this team was able to solve.

11:17 RC: That’s awesome.

11:18 MH: So not all of them are that big, but sometimes they are. Here’s the team that was going after a safety improvement and they accidentally saved a million and a half bucks a year.

11:27 RC: And I’m sure that improved morale, as well. [chuckle]

11:30 MH: It definitely improved morale.

11:32 RC: Wow, what an amazing success story there, Michelle. After hearing you speak, I definitely believe that this could have such a big impact on every single organization. Why do you think more organizations don’t do this more often? What’s the barrier here and why?

11:51 MH: The simple answer is people. It’s not about a technology, or a cool tool, or you just go spend this money and then it all gets better, it’s about engaging people and I think a lot of organizations are pretty bad about that, and particularly organizations that are engineering heavy because we tend to like the cool technology solutions, and we don’t think about just the, “How do I go engage those people that are out there working day in and day out?”

12:19 MH: So sometimes our failures are because of big technology issues, but when you dig into most failures within organizations, it’s usually because of a lot of very small things, very small things that a lot of people knew about but felt like they didn’t have the either authority, or the skills, or the time, or the mandate to do something about it.

12:39 RC: Absolutely, and I can also imagine where this comes from, where this stems from is, there’s probably one or two or a small group of people that are dedicated towards process improvement, and everyone else kinda says, “Well, you know, hey, that’s not my role, that’s not my responsibility.” When you create this cross-functional teams and say, “Hey look, this is all of our responsibilities,” that’s when people will start saying, “Oh yeah, actually I think there’s a problem over there, maybe we should take a look at it.” There is some level of general maintenance we have to do. So we can’t always… I’m guessing, we can’t always just dedicate everyone to just process improvement. What’s the best way to practically do this? Is it like a once every quarter type of thing, do we try to embed and maybe segment a small team within the company to focus on this and just rotate every couple of months? What would you recommend?

13:39 MH: From the computer modeling work that we did, we found that it only takes about 1% of your work orders being improvement work orders to really make a substantial difference and to sustain it over time. So it’s a small percent of the work. The way that I find is most effective… Obviously, you kinda have to get the program going, so doing some of these action teams and getting it going and getting people to understand it is an important part of getting it started. But in terms of keeping it going, a lot of times… Actually, using other work and just having this sort of “Don’t just fix it, improve it” attitude. So you’re going out there to do the work anyway. You’ve got a broken pump. When you’re looking at it, is there something we can do that will prevent defects from getting in it in the future? ‘Cause a lot of times the bulk of the work is in sort of getting to the equipment. To do a couple of extra things usually doesn’t take a whole lot of extra time. And so, that’s a great opportunity to do some of these defect elimination, defect prevention type activities where it doesn’t add a whole lot to your to your workload.

14:41 RC: Any suggestions for embedding that culture within the team? Because I absolutely agree, like half of the battle is just working with the scheduler to say like, “We’re gonna take this equipment offline.” How do we embed this culture within the team that says, “Okay cool. I’m not just gonna do whatever this work order says, I’m actually gonna go a little bit above and beyond here.”

15:05 MH: Shameless plug, that’s what The Manufacturing Game does really well, is it gets everybody on the same page. I think the key is giving people a chance to work together as cross-functional teams. And so not just like, say, go off-site and do a team activity. That’s fine, but you need ways for people to work together. And what I find is the smaller you make those opportunities the better because number one, if it doesn’t go well, that’s okay you haven’t wasted six months or something like that, you’ve wasted an afternoon. The second thing is it gives you a chance for repetition because what you really want is for everyone at this site to get in the habit of doing defect elimination activities. And the only way you create habits, is through repetition. And it’s really hard to repeat something a lot that takes months and months to do. So if you get something that’s a quick easy type of activity, you can get a lot more repetitions.

15:56 RC: Kind of like wrapping up here, What’s something you wish more people knew about the maintenance and reliability industry?

16:03 MH: The big thing I wish people understood is that there is no silver bullet. There’s no magic answer, there’s no computer system, there’s no monitoring system, there’s no robotics, there’s no silver bullet that’s gonna solve these problems. It’s really about hard work, and commitment, and like we just talked about the repetition to create those new habits. For tools to be effective, people have to use them, and then they have to use them all the time, and they have to use them the right way. And I think from the stuff I’ve heard about how you started UpKeep I think that fits pretty well with your experience, where you had a CMMS system that was stuck in the office because it was desktop-based, but you had technicians out in the field trying to do the work. How could they effectively use the tool when the tool’s not there for them to use? It’s about coming up with those ways to do the work, but then doing the hard work.

16:55 RC: Alright, and where do you go to continue learning, to continue improving your skills, as a maintenance reliability expert?

17:03 MH: So during this sort of non-voluntary work from home time, I’ve used this as a chance to dive into some of the resources, not specifically about maintenance, and reliability, and the technology, but more on the human side. So adult learning, gamification, communication, motivation, those types of things. But I’ve also been kinda going old school and actually reading books. And so I’ll share two of my recent favorites with you, ’cause I think these are really good. The first book is “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath and they talk about how to make ideas sticky so that they survive. And you get the buy-in, so a little bit of what we’ve been talking about today. The second one is called “Primed to Perform” by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor and this is about motivation science. And so they talk… They give a lot of good practical examples about how to build motivation into the work itself, so that people find the work fun and meaningful. So you’re not kind of always having to bribe or threaten people into doing it, they do the work because they wanna do the work.

18:04 RC: Yeah. And Michelle. Lastly, where can all of our listeners go to continue following you on your journey and connect with you?

18:11 MH: So, we’ve got a website, We also have a book available on Amazon called “Don’t just fix it, improve it!” It’s a really quick read, it’s written in story form, and it documents a site’s journey to improved reliability. So you get a chance to see, again from the human side, all of the struggles as well as all of the triumphs. It’s based on the experiences that my dad had at Dupont, but also, all of the experiences that we’ve had since then, we’ve just changed the names to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.


18:42 MH: But that’s another good option. And of course I’m on LinkedIn, so I’m happy to connect with anybody there to answer their questions, further the discussion, or just hear about their experiences. That’s definitely how I learn is from hearing about the experiences of others.

18:55 RC: Awesome, thank you so much again, Michelle, for joining us. This has been one of my favorite podcast episodes. Thank you to…

19:00 MH: Oh thanks, Ryan.


19:03 RC: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to today’s Masterminds in Maintenance. My name is Ryan Chan, I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn, or you can reach me directly at [email protected] Until next time. Thanks again, Michelle.

19:17 MH: Yeah, thank you, Ryan.

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