Six-Sigma
Tim Baker, background, with some of the Six Sigma students. (Photo by Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities)

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Four Washington State University Tri-Cities students are working to identify real-world process and cost improvements for a local company using the Six Sigma approach.

The effort is part of the master’s in business administration capstone course led by Tim Baker, associate professor of finance and management science.

A master black belt – the highest certification in the Six Sigma program – Baker said the goal is to systematically assess a process, uncover and prioritize improvement and design goals, generate and prioritize improvements, help the client implement the plan and set up a control so performance doesn’t regress once the Six Sigma project is disbanded.

“Through student-led projects, we either implement process improvements or new product designs and measure the benefits of each,” he said. “It’s all about maintaining a continuous improvement in methodology.”

Track record of cost, efficiency improvements

MBA students John Kummer, Kevin Sykes, Hongfei Rassmussen and Sammy Ernst are examining the processes and organizational structure within the local office of AREVA – a French multinational group specializing in nuclear power and renewable energy.

AREVA has been a primary customer since WSU Tri-Cities began the program eight years ago, Baker said, and the projects have saved various local organizations significant time and money.

For example, students developed a procedure to save Sandvik Specialty Metals approximately $750,000 with a 25 percent reduction in throughput variability. Another project reduced the average patient flow time for Grace Medical Clinic by 17 percent.

Value to company and students

Students are “working through organizational messes that end up generating real results,” said Paul Skilton, WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of management, information systems and entrepreneurship. “They are able to work through what we call a wicked problem. It’s a problem that doesn’t appear to have nice answers, but the students ultimately have to get to one.”

“Projects like these give us a fresh perspective on our own processes and identify previously unseen improvement opportunities,” said Lance Stephens, AREVA manager of operations strategy and supply chain.

Ernst said part of her job outside of school is recognizing a problem within her company, examining the root of that problem and determining a solution. So using the Six Sigma process in a real-world scenario in her MBA class is instrumental both in her academic and professional life.

“My employer is trying to ramp up in Six Sigma and improve its processes,” she said, “so this (capstone course) is definitely a huge asset.”

Skilton said WSU Tri-Cities benefits from having someone of Baker’s caliber in Six Sigma as a professor and mentor: “As a result of his knowledge and experience in the field, our students here locally get to work on these exceptional projects.”