GE’s lines of business range from power to aviation to healthcare. How would you summarize the pandemic’s effect on them?
As a company that supports essential services like hospitals, power generation and airlines, our priority has been the health and safety of the GE team that has served on the front lines since the beginning of the pandemic.
For healthcare, this has been a wonderful opportunity for us to step up and support Canadians, living our purpose of improving lives in the moments that matter. That has meant making sure that our clients have the equipment they need — and not just in terms of fighting COVID-19 itself; the backlog of non-urgent and elective cases is long and growing, so we have been actively working with providers across the country to ensure that this ‘surgical debt’ doesn’t become urgent. We have also pivoted our business so that we can connect with providers and patients virtually to train them on the equipment required to manage COVID.
With respect to the rest of the portfolio, the impact of the pandemic has been most acutely felt in our Aviation business. We expect the commercial aviation market to start to recover in the second half of 2021, which is dependent on containing the spread of the virus and effective vaccine programs. With the exception of some project delays, our power and renewable businesses have continued to focus on operational execution and serving customers.
When the chips are down, people are going
to take care of their own first.
Specifically, how has GE Healthcare been involved in the fight against COVID-19?
The biggest response has been in terms of ventilators and
monitors — the things hospitals need to support patients in the ICU. In addition, as mentioned, there is a huge backlog of non-essential procedures to contend with. For example, cases of diagnosed breast cancer have been reduced significantly in the past year. But we know that breast cancer hasn’t gone away; it’s just that people haven’t been going in for their screening mammography. We’re very focused on working with our customers to address these concerns.
The other area we’ve helped with is enabling the provinces to use real-time integrated data and analytics to manage capacity planning. We’ve come up with tools that allow them to know where the patients are, where the equipment is to treat those patients, and where they have available capacity. This was something we were already doing before the pandemic. For example, we have a Command Centre set up at Humber River Hospital.
You recently said that throughout this pandemic you have been “impressed by the capacity for change at an accelerated pace”. How has this manifested itself at GE?
It has been so wonderful to see our employees and customers rise to the challenge. We’ve managed to keep our manufacturing sites up and running in a physically-distanced manner using additional PPE and ingenuity while maintaining expected levels of output. As for our headquarters office, we have implemented full COVID-19 restrictions, with limited onsite personnel.
We’ve taken our meeting rooms and converted them into studios so we can virtually train clinicians on our equipment. Leveraging virtual tools to connect with customers across the country was part of our plan before the pandemic, but it was met with a lot of skepticism. The reality of COVID-19 has acted as a change management catalyst for this, and the adoption has been incredible.
In recent months, employee safety has been a priority for every organization. How have you approached it?
Safety comes first, period. That is a shared sentiment across GE Canada, regardless of the business. The approach we took was to look at it through a very cross-functional lens. At the beginning of the pandemic, we created a task force that included environmental health and safety, medical directors and nurses, human resources, our legal team, our government affairs team, tech staff and some manufacturing leaders. It was important to have this cross-functional approach as we began to develop solutions, because each situation required input from various areas of expertise. As an example, whatever you do, you have to consider people’s privacy; and you have to be able to take action based on what the latest health data tells you.
At the beginning, this cross-functional team met daily to triage the questions and issues as they emerged. Our belief was that it was best to over-communicate and to be overly-accessible to everyone on the team — and then share best practices across our sites and business lines.
It has been said that ‘we can never let a good crisis go to waste’. How have you embraced this mindset?
We are in a multi-year transformation to make GE a stronger, nimbler company. Our underlying reset prior to COVID-19 gave us a running start for what we face today, and in our response to the pandemic, we’re moving faster to transform our businesses for the long-term.
As an example, despite the pandemic, we have accelerated our efforts around lean — the operating philosophy based on the Toyota Production System — which is helping us improve safety, quality, delivery, and cost in support of long-term growth.
Canada can be the global leader in climate change solutions.
COVID-19 has highlighted some key vulnerabilities in the healthcare supply chain. How has GE addressed this?
We hear a lot about countries around the world becoming more protectionist — especially since the seamless movement of resources across the globe has been challenged. This reminds us all that when the chips are down, people are going to take care of their own first. Like it or not, that is a reality, and as a result, Canada has found itself exposed in a number of areas.
We have to be really thoughtful about what we need to have available in-country, for-country, and invest appropriately in those things. Not in a reactionary way, but we need to ask, ‘What tools do we need to deliver healthcare going forward?’ And, ‘Where do we need to have more local control than we have today?’ If we do this smartly, we can create wealth and really good jobs in key areas that will support our healthcare system going forward. That’s why I would flip this around and look at it as an opportunity.
As a company, GE is dedicated to ‘Building a World that Works’. Which particular aspects of the world are you focused on?
The biggest opportunity for Canada right now is to be a global leader in the energy transition. Climate change is an urgent global priority, and de-carbonizing the world is going to take a suite of solutions to lower greenhouse gas emissions near-term while securing a path towards a lower-carbon future. We must increase renewable energy deployment, utilizing gas as a force multiplier for accelerating decarbonization, and modernizing the physical and digital grid for resiliency. We are leading by example by committing to become carbon neutral in our own operations by 2030 through absolute reductions of direct emissions and energy use via new operational investment, waste elimination and smart power sourcing.
The second piece of this is, how do we make Canada a global centre of excellence in this arena? That takes us back to that economic wealth creation opportunity. We can be the global leader in climate change solutions.
Given the events of the past year, where do you see opportunities to improve the Canadian healthcare system?
There is a big opportunity to look at using technology differently. Whether it’s working with patients more virtually outside of the traditional tertiary centres, or the obvious need to look at our long-term care system and do that differently. This is not just healthcare’s responsibility or society’s responsibility: it’s a combination of the two. And the other area I’d mention is using data and analytics in real-time in order to inform how care is delivered, where it is delivered, and offering increasingly personalized care, with the goal of improving the quality of care and access to care, while not necessarily decreasing the cost but trying to keep it at a sustainable level. Those are the three buckets that need our attention as a country — and where we as a company have an opportunity to contribute.
On a personal level, you are known to be committed to physical and mental well-being—and for fostering these things in your employees. How do you go about that?
As a leader it is so, so important that every employee feels you’ve got their back and you understand them. We have doubled-down in a number of areas. The first one was reinforcing all the health benefits that are available to our employees and making it okay to talk about their concerns with their managers. We want to create a culture where it’s okay to talk about mental health concerns, for instance. Our employees know they can talk about anxiety, or about feeling disconnected. That starts with transparency and with creating a safe environment for your people. In addition to the benefits we already had, we made a decision at the Board level to offer virtual healthcare to our employees. I think it meant a lot to them to know that we understood the challenges they were facing and were empathetic.
In addition to that, there was regular communication. At first I thought, who wants to hear from me? I got that everyone would want to hear about what’s going on at a business level, but who wanted to hear about me and my family, and how we were dealing with the pandemic? Wrong! After I shared personal details of our situation, I was amazed by the e-mails I received. I had joked on one blog post that now that my husband and I are working from home, my father sees no issue in stopping by for a coffee in the middle of the work day. I was clear that I struggled with this, because I didn’t want to be disrespectful to him — but I was working! Let’s just say I received many e-mails back saying, ‘My mother is doing the same thing!’ It’s at times like that you realize that we really are all in this together.
Another thing I’ve realized is that video calls are a great equalizer. When you’re on a Zoom call, you can see people’s home environment, and there is a humbling aspect to that. It makes people seem more real, and as a leader, I think the more genuine you are, the more you can connect with your employees. That’s been one of the silver linings in all of this.
Heather Chalmers (Rotman MBA ’04) is the President and CEO of GE Canada and the President for GE Healthcare Canada. She sits on the Board of the C.D. Howe Institute.
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