Small Change Makes Big Difference, Whitman Course Helps Local Companies

Students discussing in the grand hall

For many companies, small inefficiencies can turn into big money losers. Although those losses add up over time, the company might not have the time or resources to address a problem that’s relatively limited in comparison to running the entire business.

That’s where Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management Professor of Supply Chain Practice Gary La Point’s Lean Six Sigma course comes in. Students in the class team up with local businesses to help solve supply chain problems. Companies save money and students come away with real-world experience. Everyone wins.

For those not familiar with Lean Six Sigma, La Point describes it as, “a methodology of addressing problems that either deal with quality issues or waste issues.” Lean Six Sigma uses a process called DMAIC – which stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, control – to identify and address problems.

Each classroom session of La Point’s course is organized around one of the DMAIC principles. The class is capped at 35 students, who are divided into teams of five or six students. Each team is assigned to an area business with a specific supply chain problem. Students who successfully complete the program are eligible for a Green Belt certification from Syracuse University, which is a registered training provider for testing of the Council for Six Sigma Certification.

Teaming up with area businesses

Since he began teaching the course in 2009, La Point says the students’ solutions have saved local companies millions of dollars. La Point notes that one project alone resulted in an additional $4.3 million in additional annual revenue for the company.

In the fall of 2022, students worked with organizations including Upstate University Hospital and CXtec Inc. Both are frequent participants in the course.

CXtec sells refurbished infrastructure hardware like phones and computers to institutional clients. When the company buys large lots of used equipment, the equipment usually comes a warranty from the seller. CXtec’s challenge was keeping track of the warranties covering its extensive inventory and prioritizing the sale and repair of equipment before the end of the warranty period. 

According to La Point, waste associated with equipment out of warranty was a “huge, huge annual expense.” The Lean Six Sigma team solved the problem by programming data fields into the company’s database to show, at a glance, the warranty status of any equipment. A color-coded red/yellow/green system lets users easily see when devices approach warranty expiration.

For Upstate University Hospital, the Lean Six Sigma team created a barcode system to keep track of specialty mattresses. The mattresses, called pulse mattresses, cost up to $15,000 each and help long-term patients avoid bed sores. The hospital had difficulty tracking where the mattresses were when they were checked out for maintenance and repairs, resulting in unnecessary costs. The barcode system and a dedicated spreadsheet helped custodial staff track the mattresses and alerted management when inventory was low.

The projects La Point selects for his classes must be limited to a specific problem that students can solve and implement within a semester. “Problems like these often fly under the radar because companies have bigger fish to fry,” La Point says. Without help from Whitman students, these inefficiencies might not be solved.

Soft skills and real-life experience

La Point arranges the student teams to include a mix of backgrounds and majors. As with most work environments, there is often a range of opinions on how to solve a company’s challenges. Supply chain management student Shubham Krishna ’23 M.S., who worked with the hospital, realized early in the class that the biggest challenges came from the human side of working with a team. “Everyone was having different thinking, everyone was having different priorities,” says Krishna. Ultimately, learning to solve the problem and apply all steps of the Lean Six Sigma process even with differences of opinion on the team gave him “readiness for the corporate life.”

The team project is often a major talking point when the students go on interviews with potential employers. “I can't tell you how many times that students have gotten jobs because of their projects that they've worked on,” La Point says.
For example, connections Margil Gandhi G’23 (ECS) developed at CXtec, along with the opportunity to prove himself through a real-life project, led to an internship with the company. In his internship, Gandhi is working with CXtec to implement the system his team created. “The best part is seeing things get implemented, seeing things changing,” he says. Similarly, Krishna notes that the perspective he learned through the course helped him to better discuss solutions to real-world supply chain problems in job interviews. He has now received an offer letter for a full-time position based on those interviews.

As with the solutions the Lean Six Sigma teams provide for the companies in which small changes add up to large savings, Gandhi says this one class has made a big impact for him. He adds, “I just feel now that my entire master's was worth it just because of this course.”

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