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Engineering a Way through Disruption

Years later, lessons from Owen still pay off for Nissan’s David Johnson

David Johnson
Senior Vice President, Nissan Motor Corporation

Vanderbilt Executive MBA 2010

David Johnson describes himself as “a technical guy at heart.” He loves both engineering and heavy equipment (his idea of a stress-relieving afternoon is moving dirt with a bulldozer on his farm).

Given this duality of interests, David’s position at Nissan must seem like a dream job. Since joining the company in 2002, after earning a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering, he has risen from the paint shop to overseeing production engineering in all of Nissan’s U.S. and Mexican manufacturing operations.

When he entered the ranks of management, David realized he needed to go back to school. “As you move into a manager’s role, you learn where your business acumen is lacking,” he says. “Rather than try to learn on the job, I wanted to learn from some of the top business leaders in the Southeast.”

David was part of the first cohort from the manufacturing group at Nissan to enter the Vanderbilt Executive MBA program. Many others have followed, and often they ask David about his experience. “I tell them, ‘Be ready to work,’” he says. “With the work we have, especially going through model cycles, it’s a challenge, but it’s one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.”

The return on investment, David recalls, was “immediate – going through the first-year courses, you begin to see things differently.” He credits a class in Human Resource Strategy, in which he studied “the best ways to support and utilize the human capital in the business,” for an enduring influence on his role as a manager.

“Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of disruption in the automotive industry,” he says. “I go back and draw on David Owens’ innovation class at Owen. How do we leverage the disruption to get our factories to where they need to be and get our workforce aligned? How do we get people with a more traditional way of thinking to embrace the digital world through AI, cloud computing and big data to drive the competitiveness of the organization?” In this way, more than a decade after earning his MBA, David is still finding new applications for what he learned.