Final Five

With Joan Wagner, systems engineer at Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita, Kansas

Joan Wagner

Joan Wagner is a longtime IISE member and volunteer. She also is an active runner and fundraiser for Team in Training (TNT), an endurance sports training program that raises money for blood cancer research through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). 

What led you to an industrial engineering career in aerospace?

Growing up in Wichita, you are surrounded by aircraft companies: Beechcraft, Cessna, Learjet, Boeing and an Air Force base. It was hard to get away from aircraft. My dad worked at Beech, and my brother and I would have to go to his office after school sometimes. I remember being fascinated … not just with the aircraft, but also the machinery used to build it. Fast forward to college at Wichita State, and I found industrial engineering, which fit my personality and what I wanted to do with my career. I did try to avoid aircraft for a while and spent almost six years at a commodity manufacturer, but eventually the lure of big projects and opportunities to improve on a large scale were too enticing. And I went to work for Boeing shortly before they sold the plants that are now Spirit AeroSystems.

When did you get started with Team in Training?

Around 2007, my dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had a great prognosis and eventually passed his five-year "all clear." A good friend of my family [who] had been active with Team in Training told me I needed to give back and do an event. By 2011, I felt I could take on a marathon and signed up to do Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco. That was one of the most terrifying things for me to do. I couldn't run due to asthma as a child, and I signed up to run 26.2 miles as a 34-year-old. I have now done nine fundraising events in running, hiking, triathlon and cycling to honor my dad and many other cancer warriors and have raised over $30,000 for blood cancer research and patient support.

How have you been able to apply your IE skills to TNT?

As nonprofits are pushed to reduce staff expenses, volunteers are having to take on more of what a paid staff member used to do. LLS has pulled back on staff support and elevated it to a regional level, which leaves smaller markets like Wichita with minimal staff support. As a result, I am leading an effort in Wichita to transition to volunteer-led-and-driven recruitment, fundraising and training support. Even though we have a great team, everyone is pressed for time, so they need their volunteering work well-defined and in manageable chunks. I developed a responsibility matrix, a communication plan and standard work for repetitive volunteer tasks (like providing water and supplies to our runners for the Saturday runs).

What benefits have you found by running with TNT?

The program has proven to me that the concept of building a detailed plan and following it is as applicable to preparing for a triathlon as it is to installing a five-axis milling machine. That is a great mindset with which to approach all of your professional and personal challenges.

I also have met some of the most amazing people whose lives have also been affected by blood cancer, from survivors to the loved ones of the warriors we have lost. When my dad developed leukemia and ultimately lost his battle in 2015, they were my support group and have been there for my family and me through it all.

How do you use industrial engineering to mentor others?

Engineering management helped me understand managing to an individual's strengths and helping manage weaknesses. When I am mentoring professionals, students, or even as a fundraising mentor for Team in Training, I help them build plans focusing on their strengths and developing methods to overcome the weaknesses.

– Interview by David Brandt