David Johnson, 45
Vice president for production engineering and new model quality, Nissan U.S.
Big break: A stint as general manager of production engineering at Nissan’s factory in Sunderland, England
David Johnson graduated from Tennessee Technological University with lofty ambitions.
“I wanted to be a space explorer,” he said.
While earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Johnson briefly worked at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., studying how to cost-effectively send geostationary satellites into orbit.
“You’ve got big dreams wherever you go into something like that,” Johnson said. “But then sometimes the experience doesn’t meet the expectations.”
Johnson’s career trajectory changed after a conversation with his father-in-law, a former Nissan director.
“We talked about the variety of jobs within automotive and where the technology was going at that particular time,” he said. “It really intrigued me.”
Johnson has had a meteoric ride since joining Nissan less that two decades ago as a paint process engineer. He says a job managing production engineering in England gave him valuable experience leading cross-functional teams. He now oversees production engineering and new model quality in the U.S.
But the vice president offers up a humbler interpretation of his duties.
“I am a servant leader,” Johnson said. “My teams are subject matter experts. It’s my job to remove roadblocks and make sure that they can do what they do with excellence every day.”
Johnson has had his hands full removing roadblocks in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic and crippling microchip shortage struck as Nissan was executing a product revival plan that’s key to Nissan’s business turnaround in the U.S.
The pandemic hit in the middle of production trials for the third-generation Rogue, Nissan’s bestselling model.
With production engineering and R&D teams forced to work from their bedrooms and basements, Johnson turned to technology.
“We instituted a weekly town hall where I would have my entire product and engineering staff on a Zoom call,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page. It allowed us to keep the project fully on track.”
Johnson advocated for using technology in manufacturing long before he was forced to.
Nissan has adopted predictive maintenance across its factories, equipping production robots with software that alerts technicians to problems early, reducing costly and lengthy downtime.
“The factory of the future will be built on technology,” he said. “I want to find real problems on the manufacturing floor and put in advanced technology solutions where the fit is right.”
— Urvaksh Karkaria