GETTING TO KNOW US – In the first of a series of interviews with Lean Global Network directors, Rose Heathcote - the new CEO of Lean Institute Africa - shares her thoughts on the future of Africa and on women in business.
Interviewee: Rose Heathcote, CEO, Lean Institute Africa
Roberto Priolo: Welcome to the Lean Global Network family, Rose! Can you briefly take us through your career?
Rose Heathcote: I’ve had an interesting 22-year journey. It all began when I was just a child. My late father was an entrepreneur, and in 1981 he opened a factory (it still operates) that manufactures butyl rubber products for the automotive and construction sectors. This was my first playground for learning about people and process, although I was not allowed to change much. This shaped what was to become my career in helping organizations realize their true potential.
I pursued my tertiary education in Industrial Engineering. After five years at an all-girl high school, it was a cultural shock to realize I was the only girl in the class! Needless to say, there was learning in that, too. I took on various engineering positions, seeing first-hand the challenges in mining, airlines, appliances and other manufacturing environments. In 2001, I joined the Automotive Industry Development Centre where I was mentored by the UK’s Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders Industry Forum and the Confederation for Indian Industry in lean. Although I was too young to truly understand the opportunity, I was privileged to be coached for a year by two kaizen experts from Japan. After working with several local automotive suppliers to improve their global competitiveness, I moved to Competitive Capabilities International and began applying lean thinking across all sectors in Africa and Middle East. It was wonderful to see how lean could work in a multitude of environments and cultures. I began to fully appreciate what it had to offer the developing world.
In 2010 I founded a consultancy which allowed me to develop my own improvement model and publish a few books on the topic.
I’ve been supporting the Lean Institute Africa since its inception 10 years ago, but my relationship with the founders goes back 15 years. Taking on the leadership of LIA has been a natural progression for me, and I’m excited to lead the institute to new heights.
RP: What’s up at Lean Institute Africa and what do you have planned for its future?
RH: We truly want to make a difference. Having debated our strategy with the leadership team last year, we’ve taken the time to figure out who we are and where we are going. We’ve refined our vision, developed our True North and thought about the key focus areas we need to get better at to move Africa forward. Check out my newsletter covering this here. We ultimately want to see a shift not only in performance and hard measures, but we are also looking for evidence of lives changing – an improvement in the quality of life of those who engage with lean. We know these changes will not occur overnight, but we are determined to take the steps to move things in the right direction.
We observe a disconnect between many of the lean activities happening on the ground and what’s defined in the strategy of the organizations we support. We are putting a lot of time and effort into helping leaders and executives see how lean can enable their strategies, connecting the action with where the organization is headed. By helping them see this connection, we believe we will stand a better chance of sustaining lean transformations where the influencers are setting the scene and engaging with lean for the right reasons. At the same time, we are connecting with future leaders, young minds, hoping to build lean into their natural way of working.
RP: What’s the most interesting project the institute is currently working on?
RH: Although we work in both the private and public sector, we are incredibly excited with the progress we’ve made in public healthcare. Our work there began more than 10 years ago, but we’ve made significant headway in the last five. We are seeing, for the first time, real transformations not only in patient service but in the development of a lean leadership style that is enabling sustainable change. Dr Anton Grütter and Prof Norman Faull will be capturing these stories over the next few months, and we will share them with the wider world as soon as we can.
Funds for public healthcare improvement remains a handbrake to the work we are doing. As such, we are in the early stages of developing a public-private partnership in the Lean Healthcare Development Programme, with the support of the Graduate School of Business (University of Cape Town). This aims to bring together what we’ve learned into a comprehensive, life-changing education. It will incorporate the breakthrough changes needed in patient service, coupled with the management system development and leadership coaching for sustained growth.
RP: In your mind, what’s the benefit LIA gets from being part of a global network of lean institutes?
RH: It’s wonderful not to be alone in our mission! We want to make Africa a better place, one transformation at a time, and forming part of a larger network with these ideals helps move us forward with confidence. We are proud to align our own work with international best practices and are grateful to have access to the best minds and trends in lean thinking globally. Collaborating across borders for the benefit of our clients is a wonderful success factor. Our Lean Summit Africa 2018 in Cape Town will host top international speakers, and we are pleased to tap into the network for this purpose.
Our registration as a Public Benefit Organisation (Not-for-Profit), affiliation with the Graduate School of Business (UCT) and membership of the Lean Global Network also differentiates us from traditional consulting firms and affords us the opportunity to provide unique service to our lean community.
RP: What can lean do to help Africa reach its full potential?
RH: I am extremely optimistic about the future of Africa. This is a tough continent to do business in, with tremendous cultural diversity, but the potential for transformation is unparalleled. In South Africa, we’ve undergone significant political change since the 1990s, which has taken us from a protected, closed economy into the global market in a relatively short space of time. This platform is still burning, driving competitiveness improvement in our private sector and social development in our country. We have much work to do if we are to survive and thrive.
One of the things I love about Africa is its rare possibilities. Anyone with a good idea, enough drive, determination and perseverance can create and execute a business plan. Entrepreneurship is the key to the continent’s growth, and both young and experienced entrepreneurs need support to build the capacity and capability to deliver great products and services. And LIA is here to support them.
In my mind, the top opportunities for Africa include: government service delivery, competitiveness improvement across all sectors, and entrepreneurship (especially of SMEs).
RP: I am so happy to see another woman in our Board of Directors. What’s your experience as a woman leader and how do you think we can get more women in leadership positions?
RH: Thank you, Roberto. I was the only female engineer in my class, and I’ve worked for many years as the only woman in the room. But if I’m honest, I never felt I was different even though I know women and men approach the same challenges in different ways. This is also what I believe is quite unique about South Africa. The transformation we’ve undergone as a country has left many of us more open minded and tolerant to differences. As a nation, we try to embrace diversity and although we may not always get it right (statistically we score lower than the global average of women leaders, see this GSB article), we are used to talking about it at a strategic level. This means in time we will be able to fully capitalize on the differences that strengthen teams. When you attend our conferences and network in our business community, you will see a healthy representation of woman leaders, but we can do better.
To encourage more woman leaders, we need to understand their challenges. I am a mother, and my daily focus is to ensure my clients don’t know I have a dual role, and for my daughter not to notice that I work. If we can be forward-thinking and promote flexible working environments (for both men and women), I think we will help more women see that they can succeed in leadership roles – without severe, personal sacrifices for themselves and their families. We all need a semblance of balance in our lives. If a working environment can be created to facilitate this and if organizations can see performance in the context of a whole-person goal, I think we will be on the right track. Women leaders should also encourage other women to take the leap – fueling their confidence levels to see their own potential and to act on this. In this way, we may see a knock-on effect of more women finding ways to join the ranks.
Rose Heathcote is the CEO of Lean Institute Africa.