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Toying Around For A Serious Reason

A Clarkson University business class— with help from Alcoa —learns that manufacturing is anything but child’s play

[A JPEG image of this event for newspaper use is available at]

Some professors will use just about anything to help their students grasp as subject, examine its many sides and put it all together.  And if it takes small, interlocking toy blocks to reinforce what’s taught, so much the better.Students from Clarkson University

Students from Clarkson University were found recently playing with Legos and neither Michael H. Ensby, an instructor in the Faculty of Organizational Studies, nor the invited employees from Alcoa Massena operations, seemed to mind.  To the contrary, they encouraged it.

It was all part of an exercise for Ensby’s "Teambuilding, Interpersonal Leadership, and the Business Enterprise" course, which exposes freshman business and Project Arete students to the realities and other challenges associated with managing business operations right at the beginning of their business education experience.

The exercise was based on a similar training program simulation that Alcoa developed to teach both line production employees and upper-level management how to solve manufacturing issues such as bottlenecks, improper procedures, and quality defects through team-based problem solving and leadership.  An employee team from Alcoa conducted the simulations and discussed the results with the students.

“Through simulation, they are supposed to be able to see some of the tools, some of the countermeasures that you use in a production system,” says Ron LaRue, specialist caster/excursion with Alcoa Business Systems in Pittsburgh,  “ways to eliminate waste, ways to manage-- through visual controls-- the flow of materials.”

Nine students were divided into three assembly lines.  Their assignment: using Legos as raw material, the groups were to assemble their products and load them into six “trucks” for shipping, all within three minutes.

In theory, it sounds easy.  Execution is another story.  One student assembled two pieces of a four-piece set.  A second student added the other two, then changed the set up of the “machine.”  The third student was in shipping, waiting for the finished products to load into the “trucks.”

To make matters worse, wordy, convoluted and bureaucratic instructions slowed production while the process of picking through a hodge-podge of Legos and unnecessary parts tied up the assembly line.  In the end, very few products were finished, loaded and shipped.  All three groups lost money.

That, according to Ensby, represented the “traditional” approach of manufacturing.

“There are a lot of bottlenecks,” he says, “a lot of inventory, a lot of waste and inefficiency.  People waiting on other people to get things done.”

Before the second round, the Alcoa employees introduced to the groups some of the new strategies and tactics companies have implemented to save time, money and grief. 

“In the second run, we distributed some of the work because the shipping department was pretty light,” LaRue explains.  “So, we’re letting the shipping the shipping department do the initial setup on the ‘machine’ in helping the operator balance more of the work across the line.”

Such ideas “eliminate the redundancy, get rid of some of those bottlenecks, make better use of their time and to not have product waiting around,” contends Ensby.

Things went a lot smoother the second time around. Needless pieces were eliminated.  Simpler instructions made it easier for each group to solve problems and improve their output.  One group even managed to get out of the red. All learned how speaking up can makes the production process more efficient.

“We learned how to communicate better,” said freshman business major Ryan W. McCarthy of Syracuse, N.Y. of the exercise.  “The first time, I thought we were all a little confused on what to do.  As we moved on, we increased productivity and we did a better job.  It will help you later on in life.”

“I think I learned what would be best for businesses and how they should run their production,” said another freshman business major, Katie M. Chevalier of Chazy, N.Y., one of the observers.  “I also learned how to keep people from getting too stressed out and help them to work together.”

“The real purpose of this is to give our students some insight into what they can expect to see three or four years from now, when they head out into the working world, “says Ensby. “They’re going be dealing with economic, financial and marketing issues.”

It’s also about dealing with adaptation in a changing workplace.  Ensby says downsizing has forced businesses to become, out of necessity, more critical of its employees.

“You have to be pretty brutal with people about what they can do to improve their performance,” he says.  “In years past, you could hide inefficiencies because there were enough bodies available to do the work.  Now, you have three people doing the work of ten and doing it with higher quality.

“One of the things we’re trying to get our students to do is to accentuate the positives and focus in on the areas for improvement, not as negatives, but as opportunities for personal growth.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Tam Tran-Viet (Houston, Tex., front left) assembles the final piece of his group’s “product” for shipping as teammates Jessica Zuhlsdorf (Potsdam, N.Y., front middle) and Jeffrey S. Sherf (Excelsior, Minn., front right) look on, while Scott J. Schappert (Hamburg, N.Y., back left), and graduate assistant Kent A. Reynolds (Charlotte, N.C., back right) oversee the operation in their job as observers.  The team-building exercise— conducted with help from Alcoa employees from Massena and Pittsburgh — is part of Clarkson University’s "Teambuilding, Interpersonal Leadership, and the Business Enterprise" course for freshman business and Project ARETE students.  (Photo by Thomas M. Watson, Clarkson University News Services)

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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