Denny Howard Retires: Reflections

Denny Howard, Gillig, CEO

I received a notice today that a person who had a tremendous influence on my professional career was retiring at the end of this year. While we only worked together for just over two years his fingerprints are all over my approach to managing business operations.

It was the summer of 1975 when I arrived in Madison, Tennessee to become the new Materials Manager at the Nashville Peterbilt truck plant.  The plant had recently returned to a 4-truck a day production schedule following a two-week shutdown due to a slump in sales from an imposed new brake standard.

I was inserted into the management team at this plant due to my experience with a new manufacturing system that the material organization was slow in adopting.  I was to report the new plant manager, Denny Howard, who had arrived a year earlier from the sister Kenworth truck organization.

From the beginning Denny was unusual to work for, as he was everywhere challenging why things were done the way they were.  Yes, a bit of in-your-face often occurred when Denny was around which kept you on your toes. He introduced radios for all managers (no cell phones then) to wear on their hip while on the job so that they could be reached if need be to respond to a critical problem.

Denny was into process flow – primarily what it took to keep all operations in station – which was the optimal objective to keep labor costs down and quality up, contain out of station installations, cabs dropping on chassis (on time) and 100% drive off at the final station.  Material needed to be at the line when needed.  Frame assembly kits were filled two to three days ahead of frame start so that any fabricated shortages could be made in the remaining time prior to frame start.  The goal was to have a clean and complete frame assembly start and not one that was partially assembled traveling down the line impacting subsequent assembly stations.

What ever conflicted or interfered with this objective was fair game for Denny’s attention and immediate action (by radio or personal visit) with the responsible manager.  When things were going well on the assembly line it was not uncommon to see Denny walking the plant with his voice recorder taking notice of conditions in the plant.   You would receive either later that day or the next morning (no email then) in what was referred to as “Dennygrams.” Often a one or two sentence note identifying the problem accompanied with an “encouraging” comment about why someone was not paying attention in the first place.

While this would seem to many in today’s theory-y world to be abrasive, intimidating and threatening it was actually a very participatory experience.  We all knew Denny had our best interests in mind and was driving each of us to a higher level of performance and attention to detail.  Looking back on it I recall it as a demanding and exhilarating experience.  The manufacturing team worked hard together with little friction because we were focused on a clearly defined goal, which Denny set for us.

In the three years I was there I moved from Materials Manager to Plant Superintendant and for a short period before I left Assistant Plant Manager.  Truck production rate slowly rose from the initial 1 shift 4-trucks per day to a three shift 27-trucks per day schedule.  Days were often 14 to 16 hours long and many times 6-day weeks were the norm with an occasional 7-day week thrown in. It was demanding but I learned more about manufacturing and production operations and what it took to bring a highly complex manufacturing process to peek performance in those short years.

Denny was recruited by Gillig in late 1977 and left Peterbilt.  He turned the same philosophy toward the conditions at Gilllig, which was then a school bus manufacturing business in the Hayward, Ca.  In the 35 years that Denny has headed Gillig they have become a leader in manufacturing heavy-duty transit buses.

There are many more stories but then what happened Madison should stay in Madison.  What is significant is the impact on those that worked for Denny during those few years and what they went to do in later positions and apply what they had learned.  I cannot answer for others but the experience was invaluable for me and I thank Denny for the opportunity to have worked and “studied” under his direction.

I wish Denny well in his retirement.

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