Associate Dean Eric Jack and Glenn Kinstler, the MBA Alumni Association’s outgoing president, recently took a look together at the inner workings of the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International manufacturing plant in Vance, Ala. As part of Mercedes’ Continuous Improvement Training Program, the pair gained firsthand insight into the auto maker’s problem-solving process, picked up a few ideas applicable to their own work, and continued the spirit of collaboration that is a hallmark of the UAB School of Business community.
A casual conversation at last spring’s graduation reception —between Jack and Kinstler, who is the director of Alabama Launchpad and a staff member at the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA)—led to a two-week immersion study at one of the world’s leading auto manufacturers. Kinstler mentioned that new EDPA President Bill Taylor, former CEO of the Tuscaloosa County Mercedes plant, encouraged him to check out the training. Jack, whose teaching and research focuses on operations strategy with special emphasis on flexibility, quality management, and supply chain management, “said, just off the cuff, ‘I’d like to go through something like that,’” Kinstler recalls. A few phone calls later, the arrangements were set.
The training, raves Kinstler, was fantastic. What made the experience especially rewarding, he says, was time spent exchanging insights with Jack on their daily drive to and from the plant, which is about a half-hour from Birmingham.
“Along with building a closer personal relationship with Eric, it was really interesting to hear his perspective on the Mercedes way of doing things,” Kinstler says. “Eric has the knowledge and experience to see the other side of the coin. The program instructors showed us one perspective, but of course, there are others. Eric understands that, and he helped me understand that. The class was geared toward front line workers, which was extremely helpful, but talking with Eric each day, we got into a number of high-level management issues that were inspired by the class.”
LESSONS IN IMPROVEMENT
The idea behind continuous improvement in manufacturing has been around for decades. By carefully studying the assembly process, the thinking goes, you can identify waste—of time or materials or effort, for instance—that creates problems or inefficiencies. Once identified, those situations can be resolved for greater productivity and profitability. “It’s one thing to say you believe in [continuous improvement], and another to see how it’s actually done,” Jack says. “A highlight for me was getting behind the scenes in a very big company like Mercedes Benz, an important entity here in the state, and seeing their view on process improvement.”
The training included both the theory and application of Continuous Improvement (also commonly practiced as Lean Principles, Six Sigma, and Kaizen). Jack was particularly impressed by a problem-solving project that both revealed and resolved a leaky seal coming out of one of Mercedes’ production lines:
“Two vehicles are made on the production line we looked at,” Jack explains. “At the end of that production line, the cars go through a series of tests, including a shower test. They bombard the car with high-pressure water to make sure there are no leaks. We discovered a leak the D-pillar in the back lift gate of this particular vehicle.”
“We retraced the problem all the way back to a specific work station where certain rubber seals were to be installed,” Jack continues. “We identified the root cause, then recommended moving the installation of the seal to a previous station, so the next one could serve as a checkpoint. In that way, we were able to simply eliminate the problem.”
For Jack, the takeaway—which inspired a class project for his students—was that continuous improvement is not about huge changes, but rather that identifying and correcting small problems can dramatically improve quality.
The Mercedes experience was certainly an interesting field trip, but its greater value is in the tangible effects on both Jack’s and Kinstler’s daily work. For Jack’s part, his Operations Management syllabus now includes a project based on Mercedes’ continuous improvement processes, and Kinstler is finding ways to apply the manufacturing-oriented improvement principles to the technology startups typical of his Alabama Launchpad clients.
The real-world experience—shared by professor and alumnus, and captured for the classroom—also speaks to the UAB Business commitment to keeping both its curriculum and its community relevant for today’s market. “Here at UAB, when we talk about strategy and our competitive edge in the marketplace,” Jack says, “we focus on experiential learning. As a professor, I’m always looking for an opportunity to bring real-world experience into the classroom, to engage students in things that are meaningful, things they will see in the workplace.”
The sincerity of that isn’t lost on Kinstler, one of Jack’s former students. “For him to have the willingness to take two weeks out of his schedule, and for Dean David Klock to give him the blessing to do it,” Kinstler says, “that really speaks volumes that UAB Business keeps faculty learning and engaged with the business community, and bringing those lessons back into the classroom.”—Jennifer Derryberry Mann