Alisha Witty’s NASA-Inspired Approach to Analytics

Former NASA analyst and engineer Alisha Witty brings a highly precise approach to global manufacturer Domtar.

When your first gig out of college is to help make sure that missions into space go off without a hitch—just as a young, starstruck Alisha Witty was tasked with while at NASA—you’re ready for pretty much anything that may come afterward.

As a former analyst and engineer with the space association, Witty tested the space shuttle system code for several years before moving into operations, where she worked on the simulator that trains astronauts prior to missions.

“There were long checklists that the astronauts would go through countless times until they could do it in their sleep,” Witty recalls. “If anything went wrong with the sequences or the flight crew had questions, our team would help them. If something broke off within the simulator, our team would go in and fix any issues. The overall goal was to help the astronauts prepare for their mission.”

As one might imagine, in such an important and perilous enterprise, there is no room for mistakes. NASA has a “zero-defect” culture with the most rigorous quality assurance imaginable—in data and every other area—with sundry internal and external audits for all flights. Witty left NASA for graduate school in 2005, but she has brought that zero-defect ethos to all of her subsequent jobs.

In 2013, she became the chief data architect of the personal care division of Domtar, the largest integrated producer of uncoated freesheet paper in North America and a leading global marketer and producer of a complete line of absorbent hygiene products. In three short years, the company has already felt the influence of her NASA-inspired outlook and approach. “I’ve carried what I learned at NASA throughout my career,” she says. “Our teams carry projects out with military precision. I can’t say that at Domtar we’re absolutely defect-free, but we strive for thoroughly tested and documented processes and procedures.”

Witty says one of the reasons her team is so successful is because she stays out of people’s way, granting them as much autonomy as possible. “We hire smart people,” Witty says. “The worst thing you can do with bright and motivated people is to inhibit them with hierarchy, processes, and procedures. This kills innovative spirit and creative solutions.”

And it’s this culture of innovation that is driven from the top, she says, noting that the CEO is frequently reminding everyone that if they have a different opinion they should speak up.

Witty works with a team of only four, though they are able to achieve a lot thanks to being allowed the freedom to come up with innovative solutions.

“When you have a difference of opinion, that can drive collaboration and blend together a couple of new ways of thought, and that’s what drives innovation,” she explains. “Otherwise, you’ll have incremental improvement, but not breakthroughs. The senior leadership here focuses on promoting independent thinking. People don’t feel compelled to do things the way they were done in the past. It’s important for people to feel comfortable to fail because we learn from that how to build something stronger and better.”

Witty’s team consists of only four people, a size she sees as advantageous. The only downfall she points out is the possibility of people getting overburdened; but when that is happening, they bring in outside consultants (the team works with thirty at any given time) to relieve some of the workload and bring everything back to stasis.

“As far as a core group, I’ve always liked smaller teams,” she says. “Small teams just get things done. There is a synergy; they can be quick and effective. Some of the larger teams I’ve been a part of weren’t as agile as the smaller teams.”

One of Witty and her team’s key contributions to the company has been to work on the integration process in acquisitions to make it smoother, more predictable, and faster. Each of the five personal care companies Domtar has acquired since 2011 had different processes and data, so it was essential to get everything migrated and integrated quickly in order for the company’s CFO to run a profit-and-loss report.

But before even touching systems, Witty and her team would go to each new location and spend a few weeks immersing themselves in the business process. They’d figure out how the company’s sales organization was structured, outline the money path, and analyze how books were closed out each month. Once they had this information, they began creating common system structures across all the businesses, along with a single reporting model. What used to take more than a year now gets done in less than four months.

Witty also uses analytics to make the company more forward-thinking—rather than reactive—about sales. Her team has improved accuracy of prospects, increased the number of leads as well as their quality, helped with territory planning, and optimized the win rate.

“It took some time for trust to develop, but our sales operations team loves our data scientists because they know how invested they are in information-driven and better informed outcomes,” she says.

Witty has also taken the lead in improving the company’s decision-making through what the company calls the Business Intelligence Center of Excellence (BICOE). The BICOE is a movement for information and analytics governance, allowing all C-level executives and the presidents to share business challenges and initiatives in order to make sure everybody is on the same page.

“We want to make sure we’re prioritizing and working on the right things,” she explains. “To make sure our information is cleansed, we have common definitions and best practices, and we receive first-hand information from each of the business owners. The good idea fairy can come around and help sometimes, but it can also wreak havoc on things that are higher priority. We get people focused back on strategy, making sure we accomplish what we need to as a company.”