To support this year's International Women in Engineering Day, we had the opportunity to interview Liz McKenzie and uncover the journey that got her to where she is today. Liz's background is in production engineering, and she was a successful leader at Toyota UK’s manufacturing plant before bringing her expertise to Board level in financial services. Liz is currently Chair at Tended, where she offers incredible support and strategic leadership in a quickly-evolving market. We were interested to hear about her experiences and achievements from her career so far.
Thanks for the opportunity to celebrate Women in Engineering Day with you! At school, I always enjoyed maths and science but had no idea what I wanted to do at university or as a job. One day, when I was 16, my maths teacher suggested going on a taster week for Engineering at Loughborough University over the summer holidays. As well as having a cracking week, on the Thursday morning, I found my future. In the Production Engineering Department, they turned a wooden chess piece, a bishop, in about 2s on an automatic lathe. A small and simple thing really. I was hooked. I did Production Engineering as a degree, loved it, and although I’ve been more of a leader now for many years, that Engineering background has served me super well, both at Toyota, making cars and in Insurance, before becoming a Non-Executive Director for a number of organisations, including Tended.
At Toyota, safety is always first. The basis of my experience is from there. Whenever there is a risk of a safety issue, a near miss, or unfortunately an accident, the team gets together to work through how to make sure it's safety proof going forward.
It can be something really simple, like a visual or feel check-in a process, right through to something tech or automated. In Japanese it's called "poka-yoke", it means problem prevention, and you use "Jidoka", which means automation of safety and quality in your process, to make sure it's a secure solution. These things work very well where you have standardised work, however they’re not so good where someone is out and about or doing different things during their day.
So when I met Leo, the Founder of Tended, and heard his vision for step change in personal safety, I knew I wanted to be involved.
Wow, a difficult question. I’ve been very lucky to have been involved in so many fab things over the years. I think the day the first European designed Avensis rolled off the line at Toyota has to be up there. I’d spent the previous three years being the Leader of the change for the plant here in the UK, a massive team effort to get everything ready to go, so it was a fab day when we finally came to build it in volume.
Being a bit cheeky though, I’m going to go for two achievements! The second was successfully moving from manufacturing to financial services. I wanted a big change, so took a risk and moved to an insurance company. It worked out well, I led a large part of the business and became a member of the Board of Directors. It was my Engineering background that enabled that - having the confidence in my personal toolkit was the thing, for example; to ask open questions, problem solve towards the ideal, working as a team, be creative in finding solutions.
Yes it's a shame that not more women choose engineering. We’re making progress on girls picking STEM subjects at GCSE, but it's still dropping off a lot at A Level and even more at university subject choice. So we’ve proven women can succeed in STEM, but not shown it as an attractive career route.
There are two big things, both need to be addressed at a young age:
There’s still a perception of Engineering that we need to correct, to make it more attractive to girls. Engineering covers such a wide spectrum, there’s really something for everyone, whether that’s designing something, making or running a process, working with massive things or tiny things, code writing to skyscraper constructing, working with customers to learn what they need, working in super tech or super simple. It’s so diverse, but we lump it all in one old-sounding name "Engineering" - time for an image change!
Unfortunately, while it's still such a low percentage, it's going to take good confidence for girls to choose it as a route. So everything we can do to support young people's confidence is a priority. It's so easy to damage someone's confidence, so hard to build it. Teaching resilience, building a personal tool kit, developing skills to be flexible and open-minded at primary age is key. Supporting anyone young we know through change to make it exciting and enticing, not scary and to be avoided…
Sometimes we have to make an effort to find the good things when we start something new. Finding those things, and therefore enjoying it, will significantly increase your chances of success in your choice, so set out with a positive mindset, focus on the good and deal promptly with the bad.
Really exciting times in Engineering right now. Engineering makes things happen. Engineering changes things. The pace of this change continues to increase, globalisation continues to increase, the opportunity to use our Engineering to improve the world is here. Let’s use our collective power to make a difference.