Martha Gardner loves data. Her world revolves around it.

Data helps Gardner do what she does best: solve problems. She’s made a career out of problem solving. The problems have a headache-inducing number of variables for which to account, and Gardner is one of the constants.

If it sounds like a job description that’s broad or abstract, that’s because, for the most part, it is. People in Gardner’s profession—statistics—approach matters as diverse as how a giant auto manufacturing plant will reduce its water consumption to preserve cash over the next ten years, to determining why there was a seven percent drop in blueberry sales at the supermarket last week.

For Gardner, who holds a master’s degree and Ph.D. in statistics, she’s chosen to apply her affinity for data and problem solving in an industrial setting. Spending 20 years at GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, and the past two years at GE Aviation’s Global Headquarters in Evendale, Ohio, few people in the past two decades have proven to be as prolific a problem solver as Gardner.

In May 2020, Gardner was awarded the Gerald J. Hahn Quality & Productivity (Q&P) Achievement Award from the American Statistical Association (ASA). It’s a prestigious award in the industrial statistics community, given to someone who demonstrates outstanding performance in quality- and productivity-focused projects within their organization. But it means a little more to Gardner than it does to most.

Gardner kicking off the 2013 ASA Quality & Productivity Conference. (Credit: Martha Gardner)

The Gerald J. Hahn award is named after the same Gerald J. Hahn (known by colleagues as “Gerry”) that spent 46 years at what is now GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York. Hahn founded and managed the Center’s Applied Statistics Program for 28 of those years before retiring in 2001. Comprised principally of statistics Ph.D.’s, the program was General Electric’s own problem-solving A-Team. Members of the program were called at a moment’s notice to travel globally to help solve diverse issues across the sprawling GE landscape. Most notably, the Applied Statistics Program was a driving force supporting then-chairman and CEO Jack Welch’s brand new Six Sigma quality program.

At the forefront of that group was Hahn. Hahn, who is Jewish, was born in Germany in 1930. Accompanying his parents, he escaped the country shortly before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis invaded Poland and began forcing Jews into concentration camps. He lived in London all of the second World War, before immigrating to the United States in 1946. Following a stint in the U.S. Army and after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Hahn got the call to join GE in Niskayuna in 1955.

Fast-forward 43 years. Gardner, months away from graduating with her Ph.D., was speaking at the ASA’s Joint Statistical Conference. As she began her presentation, she noticed someone in the crowd: Gerry Hahn.

Recalling the moment more than 20 years later, Gardner put it simply. “I was a nervous wreck once I saw him.”

Hahn recalls the same moment. “If she was nervous, it didn’t show because I was convinced to hire her before I even met her personally,” he said. “She really brought her research to life, and I thought, ‘This is a person who would fit really well in our environment.’”

Gardner did end up receiving a job offer from GE and turned down several jobs offers (including the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) specifically to work for Hahn.

“I didn’t know what I’d be working on,” Gardner remembered. “But it was very clear to me: I’d be working for a world-famous statistician. I mean, I had read his books and research papers in graduate school. I knew who he was before I even considered looking at GE, so it was a no-brainer to go work for Gerry.”

As Hahn predicted, Gardner quickly jumped in and became a well-regarded name within the Applied Statistics team and GE.

“It was clear to me pretty early that she was a driver on her own—she didn’t require much support,” Hahn remarked. “She had a great business sense, excellent technical skills, was extremely versatile, but most importantly for a statistician, she had the ability to translate those skills into meaningfully addressing problems and communicating her findings effectively.”

Hahn retired three years later, and shortly thereafter, Gardner was named the Global Research Center’s Quality Leader. But the lessons she learned in those short years with Hahn have endured and the accomplishments have followed.

Gardner now leads a team at GE Aviation akin to what Hahn led at the Global Research Center. They’re a manufacturing problem-solving A-Team, spanning from Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belts to analytics gurus to Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) and manufacturing readiness experts. Much of what they do fits into Aviation’s new proactive quality framework. As Gardner puts it, that framework is aimed at looking around corners and making data-driven predictions, enabling the team’s experts to anticipate when quality issues may come knocking. Ultimately, it’s aimed at making jet engines—an incredibly safe product—even safer, while also driving down costs, improving supply chain efficiency, and enhancing products of the future.

“Gerry was very good at taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture,” Gardner said. “People have a tendency to jump into problem solving too fast without really drilling down to the root cause. That’s the biggest takeaway I had working with Gerry, and it’s the way I try to approach whatever problem comes my way: look at the bigger picture before jumping into action.”

These days, Gardner and Hahn stay in touch through a GE Applied Statistics “alumni” group. During the COVID-19 crisis, that group has had a regular email exchange to tell their new stories and re-live memories. Hahn says it’s a great reminder of the “very high-caliber people” he worked with over his 46 years.

As for watching Gardner’s career from afar, Hahn said with no small amount of satisfaction, “I follow her progress with great pride.”

Hahn, second from left, and Gardner, far end of the table on the right, with members of the GRC Applied Statistics Program Alumni group at a November 2017 dinner. (Credit: Martha Gardner)