The Helicopter Pilot and the Artist

PANAMA CANAL (Aug. 14, 2008) U.S. Army Helicopter Black Hawk hovers above the guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut (DDG 99) to perform a fast rope exercise. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Shanika L. Futrell/Released)

In an advanced manufacturing facility like GE Aviation, you might presume that all of the leadership and administrative roles would be filled by Engineers or folks with a strong technical background. Yesterday I was able to shadow two production managers at the GE Aviation Rotating Parts production facility. These managers oversee a team of machine operators and are responsible for the production of millions of dollars of advanced aircraft engine parts.

The focus, professionalism, and leadership skills of these young women were obvious, in these respects, they could not have been more similar. However, as I was able to ask them questions I learned about their backgrounds, I learned about and started to understand how they were different. One was a West Point graduate who went on to pilot helicopters in the US Army. The other earned an advanced degree in Fine Arts. How could these women with such disparate backgrounds do the same job?

What is it that the job and the facility value most? Is it technical skill and advanced manufacturing knowledge? Or, is it communication, humility, and the ability to empathize with young men and women just coming out of high school, machinists who have worked on the shop floor for over 30 years, and a little bit of everything in between.

What I am starting to learn is that advanced manufacturing is equally an art and a science. Yes, thousands of hours and millions of dollars will go into the intricate and detailed planning of materials flow, the development and adjustment of precision tools and instruments, and the expert operation of mills and lathes to produce high tech titanium parts manufactured to within 1/1000 of centimeter tolerances. But the orchestration of all that precision is much like the choreography of a team of dancers, the precision of the team makes the individual work greater than the sum of its parts.  It takes interpretation, communication, and outstanding attention to detail to ensure it all works

As a teacher, I have a lot to learn from the helicopter pilot and the artist if I want to best prepare students to be a part of their team.