Photo of MBA students Montserrat Walker, John My, and Jason Loihle

"The School of Business wants students to have real experiences in organizations to match theory with practice."

Wendy Fraser, Ph.D.
School of Business Adjunct Professor of Business

Lean Six Sigma is a business and data-driven approach to reducing waste and minimizing defects in any type of process, and it focuses on improving efficiency and customer satisfaction. Saint Martin's Lean Six Sigma certification program is overseen by Wendy Fraser '91, Ph.D., adjunct professor within the School of Business and a consultant. One of the requirements of the certification course is a final project during which students partner with organizations to analyze and improve a real-world process. 

A problem becomes an opportunity

Lawngevity had a problem. The Olympia-based lawn service operated by Saint Martin’s MBA student John My and his father, Chhum, provided exceptional care for its clients, but the business was having trouble tracking client information and keeping up with the pace of client inquiries. The system for customer intake relied mostly on handwritten notes on sheets of scratch paper or post-it notes; this was sustainable while the business was small, but as Lawngevity grew and acquired new clients, the Mys found that customer information was sometimes incomplete or missing entirely. The old system wasn’t working anymore, so they needed a new approach.

As an add-on portion of the operations management class taught by Donald Conant, Ph.D., MBA, associate professor of business and director of the Saint Martin’s University MBA program, John was offered the opportunity to pursue a Green Belt (beginner) certification course in Lean and Six Sigma process improvement methodologies. One of the requirements of the certification course is a final project during which students partner with organizations to analyze and improve a real-world process. After some false-starts with other organizations, John and his team, which included MBA students Montserrat Walker and Jason Loihle, decided that Lawngevity would make a perfect partner for their final project.

John explained that, after the team finished their analysis and tested recommendations, most of Lawngevity’s customer intake processes were simplified and improved, and his father took full advantage of the new systems. “My dad's running with it,” John says. “So, there's no random sheets of paper anymore. Everything's cloud-based. Everything is very streamlined. And with the introduction of technology we can take a snapshot while we’re doing our surveys of the land, so it's really nice in that sense as well.”

Blending two methodologies

The Lean Six Sigma certification is overseen by Wendy Fraser ‘91, Ph.D., adjunct professor within the School of Business and a consultant. As Fraser explained, Lean Six Sigma is a business and data-driven approach to reducing waste and minimizing defects in any type of process, and it focuses on improving efficiency and customer satisfaction. “It’s all about improving and understanding the operations of an organization,” Fraser says. “We blend two methodologies—Lean and Six Sigma – in our Green Belt certification. The students work through a problem-solving process called DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control.) that stems from Six Sigma and focuses on statistical tools and making sure what you do is high quality. And the Lean part minimizes waste and time. It’s about a mindset, helping the students think about how you get something through a system as quickly as possible and make sure that you’re doing it well.”

Lawngevity is only one of several organizations that have benefited from work done by students in the Lean Six Sigma certification course over the past couple years. Besides partnering with various University areas like Admissions, Athletics, and Career Development, students in the certification program have also worked on projects with community businesses like Lawngevity and, recently, Northwest Harley-Davidson in Lacey. “The School of Business wants students to have real experiences in organizations to match theory with practice,” Fraser says.

Learning and applying

The project with Northwest Harley-Davidson came about through Saint Martin’s connections. Joe Deck ’84, one of the owners of the dealership, is a member of the School of Business Advisory Board, which meets three times a year. At the board’s meeting last fall, Dr. Fraser gave a presentation on the Lean Six Sigma certification program and Deck was intrigued. He attended the Green Belt awards ceremony, held at the completion of the certification program, to learn more. “I was curious,” he says. “And from there, Wendy and I started talking about if there was an opportunity to have a project done at Northwest Harley-Davidson, and I said, ‘Yeah. Absolutely. Let's give it a shot and see.’"

Deck and a few of his employees met with MBA students David Chard, Joshua Pine and Matthew Savolskis to discuss the specifics of the project. The Saint Martin’s team delivered a presentation to Northwest Harley-Davidson as though they were outside consultants, and all parties agreed to conditions that outlined their respective roles. Chard, Pine and Savolskis committed to analyzing the inventory process at the dealership with the assistance of the Harley-Davidson employees, looking specifically at how long it took for inventory to go from being received on the loading dock to being displayed and available for sale in the dealership.

Savolskis mentioned that the first step for the Saint Martin’s team was to do a gemba walk—a Japanese term that describes a personal observation of the real conditions in which work takes place—in the Norwest Harley-Davidson inventory area. “We set the conditions to keep all activities that day as close to normal conditions as possible, all while our team members stood off to the side in the shadows and took time measurements of each activity and distance measurements for actions taken that day,” he says. “This provided us with two things: baseline data to compare any future improvements developed by the project team, and a great snapshot of what we believed could be adjusted for maximum increases in efficiency.”

“What we all ultimately found was that the shipping and receiving department spent way too much time checking things in,” Deck says. “And a lot of that was simply a function of how the room was laid out. Our employee was running back and forth from computer to product and spending a lot of extra footwork, time and energy. We streamlined his functions and centrally located his workstation to where the process and the products flow from left to right and into the departments that it needs to get in a timely and efficient manner—it got implemented so quickly because everyone was gung-ho and ready to do it.” Deck laughs and adds, “To have outsiders evaluating, interviewing, testing, and providing recommendations—that was really helpful.”

Always improving

Fraser echoes Deck’s assessment. “We’re all mired in our own stuff, and you realize it when someone comes and says, ‘Why are you running around?’ But when you’re in the moment, you’re just doing it,” she says. “Then you think about how many trips you’re making, and think about what would happen if everything you needed to do the job was closer to you? And then you keep asking those questions.”

At the end of the process, Savolskis remarked that he and his team felt more than simple satisfaction about the work that they’d done in cooperation with Deck and the Northwest Harley-Davidson employees. “It was rewarding to know that we were able to measurably improve the economic growth in this business that will benefit the community,” Savolskis says. “Northwest Harley-Davidson does a considerable amount of charity and community work. We helped save them time and money, which allows the employees to have more time to focus on community involvement, something that’s highly encouraged and supported by the owners. This cooperation between these two institutions speaks to our Benedictine values in finding strength in service to the community.”

Many of the MBA students expressed their gratitude for being given the opportunity to learn Lean Six Sigma methodologies, particularly since they can see those skills providing value to them throughout their careers. “I think Lean Six Sigma is relatively new in the western ideology of leadership here, but not necessarily new in Japan, where it originated through Toyota,” My says. “Leadership roles are changing here, and the job market is changing as well. So Lean Six Sigma is necessary for an organization to flourish and identify key areas where improvements could be made.”

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