Accelerating the Learning Curve for Systems Thinking and Leadership

Jennifer Wang By David Rosenbaum
September 16, 2010

The longer one works within a system, the better one understands that system, and the more one uses systems thinking to meet process challenges. But today, according to Lockheed Martin Systems Engineer and System Design and Management (SDM) student Jennifer Y. Wang, as the rolling retirement of the Baby Boom generation accelerates and they take their systems thinking experience with them into the sunset, both a "knowledge gap" and a "leadership gap" are threatening American industry.

Wang says this "looming void" in tacit knowledge is especially scary in the aerospace industry with nearly 40 percent of the workforce reaching retirement eligibility within the next four years. Due to the slump in defense industry funding in the eighties and nineties that made aerospace less attractive as a career (than, say, computer science), the 40 and 50-year-olds that could be expected to take the Boomers’ places just aren’t there.

Consequently, Lockheed Martin is accelerating leadership development among its younger engineers and scientists through its Engineering Leadership Development Program (ELDP), which exposes participants to a range of experiences early in their career. Lockheed Martin identified Wang as one of these high potential engineers, making her the first fully sponsored ELDP to study systems thinking at SDM.

"When I’m daunted," Wang says, "I remind myself of two things. One, it’s not rocket science, in which case it should be easy. Or two, it is rocket science, and so I should be able to figure it out."

Systems engineering was not taught at Stanford University when Wang earned her master’s in Aeronautics and Astronautics, but at MIT’s System Design and Management program she has already seen correspondences between her studies and work.

"SDM Director Pat Hale came from the defense industry," Wang explains, "so the classes have a lot of relevance to aerospace. In [Director Hale’s] Systems Engineering class last semester, he delivered a lecture on integration, test and evaluation, and gave examples from the Navy and Draper Labs.

"It was enlightening to understand that Lockheed Martin’s process was a template all defense companies use, which is based on government customer expectations. If improvements are to be made, they must come from the customer. This lecture added business understanding to what was before, for me, simply a technical process."

Wang has also found relevance in her studies to the challenges in her industry. "The question," says Wang "is how to improve our systems. I’d like to give them greater capabilities and a more modern flavor, but the space industry demands reliability, which means everything has to be tested rigorously. Because I grew up in Silicon Valley, I’m accustomed to the IT revolution, which has a very different development cycle. With space you have to get everything right the first time. Whoever integrates a rapid technology revolution into the space industry will dominate; and they will need expertise in both systems thinking and leadership to succeed."

If Lockheed Martin has its way, Jennifer Wang will be a critical part of that effort.

Jennifer Y. Wang
Photo by L. Barry Hetherington