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MaryAnn Wright: Lessons from Moondog — How Women Can Succeed on the Shop Floor

We need more women in leadership positions in manufacturing. MaryAnn Wright, the top engineer at Johnson Controls, draws lessons from her own experience.

 

I traded in my business suits for steel-toed shoes and safety glasses. The goal? As Ford’s first female plant engineering manager, I led the team responsible for launching almost $1 billion in vehicle updates to the company’s flagship Taurus and Sable product lines. Every component and system — from the powertrains, structures, closures, interiors and chassis — were to be modified.

Being effective would require building credibility and earning respect from my mostly male plant and assembly-line colleagues. It meant walking through the body shop, getting hit with welding sparks without flinching. It meant being able to put parts on cars as they rolled down the line —just like the assembly workers. And it meant working the nightshift right alongside the operators. I also had to learn the plant ecosystem — which is how Moondog came into my life.

Don “Moondog” Stepp was a United Auto Workers (UAW) product specialist lead in Atlanta. He made sure I knew who everyone was, both in their official and unofficial positions, at the plant. As my ally, he taught me how things “really work,” so we could build critical relationships with management, line operators and UAW reps. These alliances opened doors and created support for my engineers to make change and fix issues.

With the help of Moondog, the plant’s operators and management, we found a way to build vehicles more easily, faster and at a higher quality. The 2000 Taurus and Sable launched at 30 percent better quality than the outgoing models, and we restored the luster of an iconic brand.

Moondog’s role in helping to achieve those results shows the importance of role models and partners — regardless of gender — for women in manufacturing. And for me, the most rewarding part of that project was that young engineers — several of them female — learned the impact of good and poor design, the importance of diverse teams, how to work together for a common goal and the value of bringing their unique perspectives to their jobs.

Based on these experiences, I believe the Science, Technology, Engineering and Production (STEP) Ahead initiative, launched by the Manufacturing Institute, is so critical. We need more women pursuing technical disciplines in college, along with robust recruiting and retention programs in our country’s manufacturing companies, if we truly want to position women to become leaders in the industry.

Currently, women make up approximately 50 percent of the U.S. labor force, but only about a quarter of the manufacturing workforce. A robust U.S. manufacturing industry is critical to our country’s economic strength, global competitiveness and overall quality of life.

At Johnson Controls, where I now serve as vice president of engineering and product development, we’re committed to having a diverse workforce to reflect the global markets and customers we serve. It’s challenging to find enough women with a passion for engineering, math and science to help us design and build the next generation of batteries, integrated vehicle interiors and solutions to make buildings more energy efficient.

As the daughter of an automotive engineer, I grew up with a love for vehicles and how they work from a very early age. In order for this nation and industry to close the gender gap, we need to inspire that same passion by building STEM-focused curricula in early education and then sustain that focus through high school and college.

I also believe manufacturers should leverage and support organizations — such as the Society of Women Engineers, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers — for recruiting, professional development and network-building resources.

We then need to reach out on a one-on-one basis to change the public perception that careers in engineering and manufacturing are for men. I have been fortunate to have strong female and male role models and sponsors who took risks in stretch assignments to help me develop technical, business and leadership acumen. It’s important that our young women professionals are actively mentored and provided the right development opportunities and experiences at the start of their careers to ensure they realize their full potential.

For more than 25 years, I’ve worked in the automotive industry — designing and bringing to market the vehicles people drive and the batteries that power them.  I’ve experienced the high quality of technical work my female colleagues and team members have brought to the factory floor. And I’ve seen increased growth, profitability and employee engagement for the companies, with a strategic priority to develop and position women as operations leaders.

It’s proven — companies with higher percentages of women in senior leadership positions deliver better business results and higher returns. Even Moondog can’t argue with that.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)

 

MaryAnn Wright is the Vice President, Engineering & Product Development at Johnson Controls in Milwaukee, WI. MaryAnn leads Johnson Controls global engineering, product development and R&D activities from idea to commercialization across the full continuum of energy storage solutions for powertrain applications.

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