Brian Miller loves both of his jobs. The first pays the bills. The other pays it forward.
“It’s fun to build stuff,” he said of his volunteer work. “But you know what keeps you working on a 100-degree day? Knowing that you’ve made a difference for somebody in a really meaningful way.”
Big Data, Big Insights
Miller is a data catalyst at John Deere Des Moines Works in Ankeny, Iowa. He’s responsible for collecting and analyzing massive amounts of manufacturing data to find new ways to improve quality, increase efficiency, and boost productivity.
“Just about everything at our factory produces data, right down to the torque wrenches we use on cotton harvesters that have just rolled off the assembly line,” he said. “Those wrenches are connected to an online system, so we can find out when a bolt was torqued, how fast it was torqued, even how many rotations it had before seating. It’s unbelievable.
“We used to send folks with clipboards running around to manually perform quality checks. Now our inspectors know, for example, where a specific sprayer is and what they need to check. That helps us become more efficient and gives us more time to build even better products for our customers.”
Miller’s role is a first-of-its-kind job within Des Moines Works, and he’ll freely admit, with a laugh, that he’s “never been in a position so right for me that I’m less qualified for.” But his factory manager Roz Fox saw something special in him.
“Brian really helps our leaders think differently about the business and he pushes those of us who might be a little resistant to technology understand how we can improve processes, enhance the quality of Deere machines, and he enables our factory employees to work more efficiently,” Fox said.
“And I’m so impressed by his dedication to help those in need,” she added. “It’s a core value for him, and he truly lives his life this way. He uses personal and vacation time to serve Habitat for Humanity, he recruits volunteers to help build homes, and he inspires us to give back to the communities in which we live and work.”
“Everybody’s Got a Story”
There’s an old saying: To whom much is given, much is expected.
“I want to give back because if we’re blessed with good fortune, then we’ve got to do all we can to help those in need,” said Miller. “That’s why I try to give ten percent of my time to help others, including Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity. It’s an organization building sustainable housing for families to help them obtain a higher quality of life and, in many cases, achieve the American dream.”
Philanthropy is a long-standing passion for Miller. But one project personifies the purpose behind his perspiration.
“You don’t always get to meet the families whose home you’re building,” Miller said. “But one day, the man who would soon own the home was out there toiling in the heat with us. At one point during construction, we were working together. It’s just me and him, and he starts sharing his story.”
Miller’s eyes begin to redden, and his voice begins to crack.
“He told me he was from Bhutan, and one night he was awakened by a loud knock on his door.” It was a heavily-armed government soldier ordering him to leave the only home he’d ever known. He fled to Nepal and spent the next 20 years in a tent at a refugee camp. Somehow, he made his way to the U.S. and lived for a few years in substandard housing. When I finally presented the key to him, he gave me a huge hug and told me how special it was for his family.
“You know, I think it’s easy sometimes to presume that people get into these situations because they made bad choices. Well, somebody came and forcefully evicted him from his country. It wasn’t his choice. That’s why we all should be very careful about what we assume about people. Everybody’s got a story.”
Built to Last
As Miller’s involvement with Habitat deepened, he was invited to an annual awards ceremony back in 2014.
“I saw a guy there with a John Deere shirt on, so I went over and introduced myself,” he said. “His name was Michael Zevenbergen, and he was there to receive an award. We talked, and by the end of the night we came up with an idea that would increase the company’s involvement with Habitat.”
They called the new program Built to Last.
“We wanted to encourage Des Moines Works employees to volunteer consistently with Habitat,” said Miller.
The pair’s initiative grew slowly, and they expanded Built to Last to nearby John Deere Financial (JDF) and Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG) locations. Since 2016, employees have contributed more than 5,000 combined hours and with matching citizenship funds from Deere, Built to Last has provided more than $130,000 to Habitat for Humanity.
Never in their wildest dreams could Miller and Zevenbergen imagine that their plan would make such a significant impact.
“I’m big into revitalizing neighborhoods and creating affordable housing, so it’s an amazing feeling when we can help a family of eight living in a cramped apartment afford a new home,” said Zevenbergen, a warranty and reliability engineer at Des Moines Works. “The Built to Last initiative is so popular that we’re trying to find room for all of the volunteers who want to participate. In fact, 40 Deere employees want to volunteer next week, and we’re searching for open spots. It’s an awesome problem to have.”
This year, the John Deere Foundation provided a grant to encourage Des Moines Works production employees to get involved.
“We asked Habitat how many walls for homes they’d built in one day, and they told us three. We said, ‘we’re going to build four,” said Miller. “Our production employees already knew how to build quality products efficiently, so we cleared room on the shop floor and constructed enough walls to build four homes in the community.”
Miller’s red eyes suddenly return.
“It makes me feel amazing to look back and see how many people have given their time and talents just because Mike and I had a little bit of courage,” Miller said.
“Today, it’s so much bigger than us,” he added. “I’ve gained new appreciation for volunteerism and my love for people has grown substantially because we’re all the same, no matter what we look like or where we come from. This shows that it’s totally possible for ordinary folks to do extraordinary things.”