Dennis Bowman Embraces Failure to Solve Problems

Dennis Bowman of John Deere’s Product Engineering Center, Waterloo, Iowa is the winner of the 2018 Tractor Engineering Fellow.

For nearly 40 years, Dennis Bowman has had his hands in John Deere’s tractor success. Dan Dufner, manager of tractor engineering, said in his 2018 Fellow Award nomination of Bowman: “Arguably, Dennis has had the single greatest influence on the success of John Deere large tractors of any active employee today.”

Dennis Bowman knows a lot about tractors. Most likely, his knowledge of the product line eclipses most employees in John Deere. To be fair, though, he did have quite a head start.

At age 3, in the Mississippi River bluff town of Guttenberg, Iowa, Bowman would crawl under the family’s tractor, knowing work needed to be done, and he was the necessary second set of hands available to hold the trouble light.

It was winter when the chore tractor sat idle and required an overhaul before the demands of spring came calling. To his father, it was routine maintenance. To the young boy, it was an opportunity to learn.

With the light cupped in his tiny hands, he would get on his back and scoot his way along the cold, dirty, concrete floor, positioning himself next to his father. The warmth of the bulb made those cold January nights more bearable. The smell of diesel fuel sat deep in his nose, a welcomed reminder of where he was and what soon would happen next.

They would move in unison as his dad searched out the problem. As this diagnosis was taking place, the young boy would shift the light’s handle from one palm to the other, squeezing it in his left hand — using the right to map his future.

“What’s that?” he’d ask and point up to the underbelly of the engine. His dad would explain, providing as much detail as the boy wanted. He would reach out and guide his son’s hand, moving the light so both could see.

“What’s that?” came again as the light and hand floated to another part of the engine. “The crankshaft,” his dad would answer patiently.

“What’s that?”

And, so it went. The education of an engineer. All before he could ride a bike.

At age four, he was driving a tractor, steering it to pick up hay. After all, a family farm, by definition, means just that.

As the years passed, the questions became less frequent, not because the boy had lost interest but because he understood more. At age 10, he still was under the tractor with his father, the space on the shop floor now a little more cramped.

Learning from Experience

At age 11 Bowman sought independence. And validation. The latter, not necessarily from his father, but from his own ideas – wanting to prove that he could solve problems and contribute to the family’s farming operation.

“You get these curiosities and start asking questions. Once you start learning, that’s when you begin doing things on your own.” —Dennis Bowman

“You get these curiosities and start asking questions. Once you start learning, that’s when you begin doing things on your own,” Bowman said. “Of course, there are hard lessons to learn when you know you should have listened.”

Farming is an all-day job, and between dairy cattle, hogs, grain crops, and contract work, the sun couldn’t stay high enough long enough for the Bowmans.

“He was very busy,” Bowman said of his father. “He was involved in a lot of farm associations, working our farm, and the contract harvesting. It all kept him on the go. Eventually, I realized, I had to become independent … and when he saw that, he left me alone. It was a natural progression.”

Being on one’s own did come with parameters. Following them was not supposed to be optional. But, at some point, the son believes he knows better than the father. Before he was a teenager, Bowman recalls sitting at the edge of the field, near the road, his tractor dead. If you were wanting to hide a mistake, this was not the place to do it.

“My dad drove by and just looked at me and smiled. He knew. He knew I had done it my way,” Bowman said.

His dad just kept driving, not slowing down for a status update or words of encouragement. The father knew what the son had done. He knew he had gone beyond the parameters.

“When he kept driving, I knew what it meant. It meant ‘you screwed this up, you’re fixing it.’ And, I knew he would be coming back by soon so I had to fix it fast – and do it the way he suggested.”

Prepared for College

What Bowman hadn’t realized until he enrolled at Iowa State University was all the questions, work, hours on a tractor, failures, and problems solved as a child had added up. They had put him in a unique position, separating him from many of his classmates. He had simply experienced more. His concern of coming from a small town to a big university proved – after adjusting some study habits – to be minimal. He was ready for the next phase of his education, the more formal one.

Bowman capitalized on that time and used it to land his first job out of college. The irony was, that while his dad longed to be an engineer at a company like John Deere, Bowman saw that opportunity – his new role in Waterloo – as a small bend in the road on his way back to farming.

“I thought it would be just a couple of years at John Deere and then I’d be farming again. That’s the funny thing about goals and life, sometimes they’re not on the same page.” —Dennis Bowman

“I thought it would be just a couple of years at John Deere and then I’d be farming again,” Bowman said. “That’s the funny thing about goals and life, sometimes they’re not on the same page.”

At Waterloo’s Product Engineering Center, he quickly found a home, and a mentor in Terry Woods – PEC’s tractor chassis engineering manager.

“He was an instigator and a motivator,” Bowman said. “He was the king of simple. He’d put a sketch on the wall and challenge you, and you understood what he wanted to get to. Then he’d leave you alone. And that’s kind of how I grew up. I don’t work well for people who micromanage. Autonomy is something I had as a kid growing up. My dad was too busy to sit around and watch me do what he just told me to do.”

Parental Influence

“When people are working on a problem it’s OK to give them a little rope...That’s how we learn. If you turn people loose with the proper goals in mind, amazing things can happen. But you have to trust.” —Dennis Bowman

To say that Bowman is his dad’s son through and through would be paying his mother a disservice. If the sum of a child is the better parts of his parents, Bowman may be more of his mother than his father.

He describes her as hard-working, keeping her day stretched by milking the family’s 60 dairy cows, managing a big garden, tending to hundreds of chickens, and making her two sons clothing, all the way through junior high school.

“Dad was a jokester. She was more serious,” Bowman said. “She made sure nothing went to waste. And she was a perfectionist. Dad wasn’t nearly as much of a perfectionist as she was. He’d say, ‘let’s get it put together and done.’ And she’d say, ‘let’s get it put together exactly right.’ I’d have to say that I’m fussy. If you get it done and you’re not happy you tear it apart and you do it again. That’s my mom right there.”

Bowman’s nearly 40 years in the tractor business, woven together by customer feedback and a dedication to solving problems, eventually put him on another path, that of a Fellow Award honoree.

“I hadn’t paid too much attention to the award. I had nominated a colleague a couple of years ago, so I was aware others have to nominate you and support you,” Bowman said, his voice trailing off as if reluctant to finish the thought. “It makes it quite humbling experience.”

Finally, Bowman settles on a theme that is the mold for his success.

“I hadn’t paid too much attention to the award. I had nominated a colleague a couple of years ago, so I was aware others have to nominate you and support you...It makes it quite humbling experience.” —Dennis Bowman

“When people are working on a problem it’s OK to give them a little rope. And it’s OK if they don’t always make it. Because you know, they’re not always going to make the right decision. Neither am I. That’s how we learn. If you turn people loose with the proper goals in mind, amazing things can happen. But you have to trust.”

It’s a lesson Bowman started learning in the middle of winter, with a trouble light in his hand, and his dad at his side.

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Dennis Bowman Embraces Failure to Solve Problems

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