Hamilton Sundstrand VP Still Values Early SDM Experience

Tom Pelland By Kathryn O’Neill
May 24, 2011

More than a decade after graduating from MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM), Hamilton Sundstrand Vice President and General Manager Tom Pelland, SDM ’98, says systems thinking is more valuable in aerospace today than ever before.

"Without a doubt, systems thinking is becoming more and more important," said Pelland, who runs Air Management Systems, the Hamilton Sundstrand business unit responsible for aircraft environmental control systems. "As products become more complex, it’s not enough to understand component links. We need to understand interactions at a higher level, including other aircraft systems."

Pelland certainly knows complexity. He runs a multimillion-dollar business with products on virtually every large commercial aircraft in service today—as well as many military planes. "I’m in charge of meeting financial results, customer commitments, as well as design and manufacturing activities." he said.

Systems-level thinking is critical for the aerospace industry to find efficiencies, he said. For example, in order to maximize fuel efficiency, Boeing replaced many traditionally pneumatic or hydraulic systems with electric systems in its new 787 aircraft. That includes the environmental control system—a specialty of Pelland’s division. "It’s really a technology-groundbreaking aircraft," Pelland said.

Managing people also requires systems thinking, Pelland said, noting that he has about 450 direct reports and is responsible for the work of approximately 1,800 within Air Management Systems. Lessons from SDM have helped him to handle the complexities of managing within Hamilton Sundstrand’s matrixed organization, he added.

"In a highly technical organization, managing those interfaces in such a way that nothing gets left behind is difficult," he said. SDM helped him to understand organizational dynamics and systems dynamics modeling, and allowed him to bring best practices back to his company.

Sponsored by Pratt & Whitney, Pelland was an engineer who had just stepped into a program management role when he joined the newly launched SDM program in 1998. "I was looking at an MBA, but when SDM came out, it seemed a much better fit because it had the technical side and the financial side," Pelland said. "The curriculum was very well matched to the skill sets that I needed."

Even in the aerospace industry, systems thinking was relatively new then, so Pelland was instrumental in spreading skills through his company. He did his SDM thesis on the design structure matrix, for example, working to incorporate elements of it into Pratt & Whitney’s processes.

In total, Pelland spent 20 years at Pratt & Whitney, taking on increasing levels of responsibility, including serving as director of the program that created the high-bypass turbofan engine for the Airbus A318. He moved to Hamilton & Sundstrand just two years ago and said, "I’ve continued to leverage the [SDM] curriculum."

Pelland also keeps in touch with several members of his SDM cohort. "The cross-section of industries represented in the program was important to me, providing recognition that the challenges we have in aerospace aren’t that different from other businesses" he said. "There are still folks I keep in touch with now that I call on occasion to bounce ideas off them."

Tom Pelland