THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Laurie Altman: Abrasive background – polished new leader

Laurie Altman has been with 3M for 21 years. Her appointment as CEO of the company’s New Zealand operations is her first overseas posting. All but six of her years with the company have been spent in St Paul, Minnesota, head office territory. She is here in search of growth.

“Growth is by far our first priority,” she says settling into the swing of the conversation. “Profitable growth.” And the company is off to good start this year, she adds. “My other goal, because of my background, is to get Six Sigma integrated into the organisation here.”

Six Sigma is the data-centric business improvement methodology 3M embraced couple of years back when it appointed James McNerney Jr its new CEO in 2001. His appointment, the first time an outsider had been appointed to the top job at the 100-year-old enterprise, was designed to shake the company out its mid-’90s performance slump. McNerney, former GE executive, is Six Sigma disciple and has been pushing its adoption deep into 3M’s traditional manufacturing and innovation-driven culture.

Altman, for her part, is “black belt” in the Six Sigma art of performance measurement and process improvement and makes no bones about her intention and assignment to embed the process here.

“In its simplest form Six Sigma is nothing more than set of statistical tools and processes for problem solving,” she explains.

“But it is also about culture change and how an organisation thinks about problems, defines them and ensures that the things we are working on are aligned with our business strategy.”

According to the practice literature, Six Sigma describes quantitatively how process is performing. In other words, it is measurement-based strategy that focuses on process improvement and reduction in product or service variations.

Motorola and Allied Signal kicked Six Sigma into life in the early ’90s. GE in the United States, one of its early adopters, says the company benefited to the tune of $16 billion, in the first five years of its implementation.

Since 3M embraced the process, the company has turned round its lacklustre performance of the past decade and, says Altman, is again performing “ahead of its peers”. Six Sigma has, she says, delivered “transformational change” to the company. And change is what Altman is good at.

“I see myself as change manager. I thrive on change,” she says confidently.

“It is very important to me to be in an assignment where I feel I can make difference.”

Introducing Six Sigma to the New Zealand environment is about change. And that’s probably part of the reason why Altman was appointed to succeed Marshall.

Already steeped in the process before her assignment here, Altman has, in turn, to identify and create other black belt and green belt level coaches to push it through the company’s consciousness and culture.

There will, she acknowledges, be some resistance to acceptance of the new practices which Six Sigma brings with it. The US experience was that some leaders see it as “more for me to do”. The key to success, as with most change, is to “get top management aligned and the rest of the organisation comes pretty quickly into line”, says Altman.

Her tactic is to get some early successes with individual projects to demonstrate to the rest of the organisation that it works.

“In the US we started by deploying it across all 3M business units and I was lucky enough to be part of the first wave so I was there pretty much from the beginning.

“We started by identifying projects that would take only four to six months to complete.”

The object of the exercise was to make an impact and convert the non-believers. “We started out training set of individuals in black belt [full time commitment and leadership providers] roles across the company and then fairly quickly moved to train large numbers of people as green belts [part timers who get coached during the process by black belt exponent].” Altman wants to see 65 percent of 3M’s local salaried employees green belt trained by the end of the year.

“That is the way to get really large number of people engaged in the process.”

3M New Zealand is new territory for Six Sigma and the company has been ramping up the resources it has devoted to the process. More black and green belts have been committed to coaching and training local employees.

“And because we have now got some completed projects we are making good process,” says Altman.

Does Six Sigma change the corporate culture?

“I think it does,” she says reflectively. “I think people get more used to looking at numbers for example. The idea of measuring – if we can’t measure it we can’t improve it – might be simple concept but it is one of the first things that affect people. As they work on project they see the value in being able to measure it. People start to get hungry for data.”

Altman’s career background is technical. But if her speciality is coated and non-woven abrasives (still the core competency of the now more diversified 3M enterprise) her approach to the interview is smooth and polished. She lists her functional strengths as vision and strategy creation, aligning organisations to deliver business results, team building, team leadership, managing and driving change, continuous improvement and coaching and developing employees.

“We have our first female abrasives specialist here in New Zealand,” she says with smile. “Bit of shock to people but it’s not that uncommon in the US.”

Altman is not here just to bring Six Sigma to 3M New Zealand.

“That’s part of it. Bringing that in will help us achieve an even higher level of business performance. That’s my ultimate goal.”

Her term in New Zealand is likely to last three to five years. When it is over she likes to think she’ll leave company employees are “proud to be part of” – not that they aren’t at present.

“I don’t just want to maintain the business. Maybe I can help take it to another level. And I want our customers to view us as their preferred suppliers.”

Her objectives, she concedes, “might sound pretty obvious” but they take commitment and discipline. And if she can add something to New Zealand business and society, she’d like to do that too.

Different CEOs get involved in different aspects of the society outside their work and Altman’s interest is education. “Education is an area where I do have personal passion,” she says, adding that she has daughters aged 10 and eight years old.

“We are fairly active family, so coming here has many family attractions too.” It might mean change from the snow and ice-based pursuits of northern US state, but that fits Altman’s comfort with change.

While she follows in the footsteps of some fairly impressive 3M leaders, Laurie Altman also looks set to fairly comfortably fill their shoes.

Altman in Brief
• 1980 – Gained BSChE University of Michigan.
• 1981 – MSChE University of Notre Dame. Joined 3M as process development engineer.
• 1982 – MBA University of Minnesota, Carlson Business School.
• 1983 – Plant manager, Abrasives Manufacturing.
• 1984 – Six Sigma Master Black Belt.
• 2003 – Appointed CEO 3M New Zealand.

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