In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, global travel has experienced an unprecedented downturn. With airlines taking the brunt of the impact, forward-thinking companies like Rolls-Royce, whose jet engines power a large share of the planet’s airliners, are looking to collaborative, digital projects as a way forward.
As solution manager at Rolls-Royce’s Lifing Insight for civil aerospace, Bal helps ensure the optimal through-life performance of the company’s engines by defining the strategic direction of its digital lifing products.
Off the beaten track: from Punjab to Derby
Bal Sangha spent the first five school years of her life in her native India. Born into a Sikh family from the Punjab region of north India, she didn’t speak a word of English at the age of 10, when she moved back to the United Kingdom with her family.
Growing up in a conservative culture, where boys were expected to seek higher education and girls to become good wives and mothers, Bal gravitated toward the road less traveled.
“When I turned 16, I told my parents that I wanted to get an education. It took a few discussions and compromises on both sides. My father was well educated himself and generally my parents were reasonable so in the end they were supportive of me going to university.”
After graduating with a degree in Computer Science, Bal moved to Nottingham, where she eventually came to apply for a job at Rolls-Royce in the nearby city of Derby.
“I started with the company in 1985 and worked until 1988, when I decided to go into the family business, which was in the clothing industry. This gave me an excellent chance to familiarize myself with the logistics of importing, wholesaling and retailing. I developed the business until 1995, when I decided to go back to Rolls-Royce.”
Returning to Rolls-Royce, Bal was met by a company that was profoundly transformed in terms of parent-friendly benefits as well as gender and ethnic diversity.
“The most beautiful thing about going back to Rolls-Royce was the big changes that had happened during my time away. Today, looking at the digital team, we have representation from almost every ethnicity from across the globe, which is lovely and a huge benefit for the business.”
Collaborative innovation in service of a broad solution
Bal describes herself as an innovative, enthusiastic, and diligent person, who never takes anything at face value.
“I love finding new ways to do more with less. But to formulate an effective solution to a problem, I must first scale it back to first principles. I need to understand the underlying business process and use that understanding as a blank canvas to find a solution.”
This work ethic is apparent when considering the joint project that Rolls-Royce and IFS launched in 2019 and in which Bal has played an important part.
“I contacted IFS in 2018 to discuss the possibility of digitally connecting IFS Maintenix to Rolls-Royce’s lifing system. This would enable airlines to exchange data automatically, making it easier for them to take advantage of services provided by Rolls-Royce. Our assessment showed that a large number of our airline customers for Trent 1000 engines for Boeing 787 aircraft and Trent XWB for the Airbus A350 were already using IFS Maintenix. Even though it was an unusual request for IFS—normally, it is the airlines who would request such updates—it was clear that I was talking to an organization who was interested in exploring this idea and could also see the benefits for our customers, Rolls-Royce and IFS.”
We began with a workshop and a string of meetings and in 2019, Rolls-Royce and IFS had the opportunity to share the idea and solution with the airlines at the regular Rolls-Royce customer conferences.
“The partnership with IFS has matured and deepened throughout this project, to the point where today, I feel I can just pick up the phone or get in touch via email to collaborate on new ideas.”
The circular nature of inspiration
For someone like Bal Sangha, whose first-principle approach to problem-solving is taken directly from the playbook of the likes of Elon Musk, innovation must happen in collaboration with like-minded others.
“Both privately and professionally, I make sure to take care of the people in my life. All efforts I invest in making sure my solutions are optimal must therefore be matched by time spent on providing support and inspiration for my team.”
As Bal has learned firsthand, the act of finding inspiration in one’s work is only half of the equation. The other half, and the much more challenging side, is to be an inspiration for others.
“When I went back to my native Punjab about 10 years ago, I found that my village was very proud of having a local girl attain higher education and working for a company like Rolls-Royce. In fact, the village was about to open a computer center and, when they found out I was visiting, they canceled the local member of parliament, who was booked to cut the ribbon, and asked me to do it instead. It was such a fantastic honor and immensely inspiring to be seen as a role model, especially for girls interested in getting an education and career.”
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