Industry

21 JUN 2022

INVENTORS AND INNOVATORS HELP TO IMAGINE THE FUTURE

Ahead of International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June, AECOM’s Lekha Giridharan describes how inventors and innovators are helping to imagine the future.

Every day, the technical skills and innovative thinking of engineers are helping to tackle the world’s biggest problems, so it is apt that the theme of this year’s International Women in Engineering Day is inventors and innovators. 

As an industry, we need to apply those same problem-solving techniques to address our persistent equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) challenges, thinking differently about how we can drive change. 

As a mechanical engineer who started my career in manufacturing, I adopted lean change management techniques that promote continual improvement. The manufacturing sector is well-known for leading in lean. Across automotive and aerospace sectors, I saw the impact of lean practices on improving productivity, driving efficiency, reducing error rate and enhancing effectiveness in systems. 

Lean manufacturing focuses on maximising productivity while minimising waste within operations and processes. The concept of waste here is deemed anything that does not add value to the customer paying for the product. Lean is defined as a way of “doing more with less” – more impact with less material, less equipment, less human effort, less time, less space – all while moving closer to providing customers with what they want. 

In today’s world, I translate this to conscious decision-making to leave sustainable, ethical legacies. I believe this mindset can be applied to our everyday lives as well as our business challenges, using structured, scientific methods to reach better outcomes. Looking at ED&I challenges, let’s begin with assessing the end-user – our society. 

Who are we building for? The end-user of infrastructure is our communities, the diverse networks of people and cultures across our globe. Legacies are made when we create landscapes where people have the freedom to be their own authentic selves, unashamedly and unapologetically. 

Customer value is core to lean philosophy. Inclusion of under-represented groups in decision-making will hugely help to better our understanding of future value. Developing project teams who are representative demographically of the countries and communities we serve as an industry will help us to understand the first principle of lean: Define Value. 

If we want to be proactive change agents, we should be considerate decision makers. Lean culture reinforces considerate decision-making by empowering a workforce to continuously challenge the status quo and action change to achieve improvements. 

With people central to the success of this approach, it can be applied to any business initiative or process and could hugely help our sector to address its ED&I challenges by driving focus, encouraging different ways to solve problems, and delivering better outcomes faster, through collaboration and right behaviours.

I am vice-chair of AECOM’s Ethnic Diversity Network Employee Resource Group (ERG) and we have similar networks for LGBTQ+ and Gender. These voluntary groups enable colleagues of all levels to come together to shape and influence organisational change. Their purpose is to advocate an equitable workplace and promote a greater sense of community and inclusiveness. 

ERGs are vitally important platforms that enable employees to form meaningful connections, instilling a deep sense of belonging and purpose. They can impact wider industry through partnerships with clients and professional bodies. More cross-business and industry networks like these will help accelerate our ED&I journey.

The lack of diversity in our sector, which stretches beyond gender, is well-documented. There is no overnight fix but finding new ways to attract a more diverse workforce will be key to implementing change faster. Better highlighting the vital role of engineers in securing the world’s future will help to make the sector more appealing and impactful. We need to promote our industry and the opportunities it offers more broadly across society. Women still make up only 16.5% of engineers. It’s difficult to be what you can’t see. Representation matters. Inclusion matters. Let’s help show young girls that they have a place in engineering.

As a sector, we also need to evaluate how we can better retain diverse talent. Building a culture where employees feel safe, recognised and valued, enables all to bring their best selves to work. This will naturally increase job satisfaction, happiness and productivity.

By following lean management, we can encourage idea generation resulting in the co-creation of change and feedback driven improvements. Through this way of working, we can empower people to raise issues, identify opportunities and make suggestions, solving big problems together. We need to be as creative and innovative in our approach to ED&I as we are to technical problem-solving.

Lekha Giridharan is senior lean consultant and co-chair of ethnic diversity network (ERG) at AECOM.

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