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Release: Immediate

UI business students spend spring break in 'Kaizen' (It's not a tropical paradise)

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A group of business students from the University of Iowa will spend spring break working up to 15 hours a day helping an Iowa corporation improve the way its organization works and learning first-hand about a management strategy designed to create dramatic results quickly.

Students in the master of business administration (MBA) program will be part of "Kaizen" teams at Pella Corp. in Pella, beginning Monday, March 16, the first full day of spring break for UI students. The students, members of the graduate-level course, "Rapid Continuous Improvement," will be at the companies until March 20.

Kaizen is the name of a Japanese-style management strategy that aims to identify ways companies can improve specific parts of their business operations and implement those improvements quickly, typically within a week.

"It's not a process of studying things to death and making recommendations," says Philip Jones, professor of management sciences at the UI and instructor of the course. "It's really action-oriented. It's go in and make things happen."

As part of the class project, a group of six students in the class will spend the week at Pella Corp. While there, they will be assigned to different Kaizen teams assigned to work on projects identified by the individual departments.

A typical Kaizen team includes people from inside the company -- managers, production operators and other employees -- and people from outside the company. The teams train in Kaizen principles and begin looking at their assignments Monday. They analyze the situation Tuesday, implement their recommendations Wednesday, and train employees in the new system Thursday.

On Friday, the teams make presentations to company leaders.

Al Carlson, staffing manager at Pella Corp., says the company began using Kaizen in 1993 and has been able to do away with periodic shutdowns to retool factory operations ever since. The manufacturer often has a dozen Kaizen teams working at a time on different areas of the company's operations.

"Kaizen really gives people a sense of empowerment, and it gives them a chance to have their ideas implemented," Carlson says. "It's a lot of hard work, but it also can be a lot of fun for the people involved."

Jones says the week can be fairly intense, given the timetable. "People will be up at midnight moving pieces of equipment around the shop floor if they have to," he says.

Scott Miles, a first-year MBA student and a member of the class, says he's looking forward to the week, in part because of its intensity.

"You don't often get the chance to go in to a company, analyze a process, set some specific goals and then make what you brainstormed on paper happen," Miles says.

This is the first time students in the class have gone to actual companies to work as members of Kaizen teams, Jones says. He was a little worried that students wouldn't want to give up their spring breaks, but he says that hasn't been a problem.

Companies in the United States first began using Kaizen principles in the late 1980s. The process is most widely used in manufacturing, but the principles also apply to other sectors, such as the service industry or business office operations. For example, two UI students will be part of business process improvement Kaizen teams at Pella Corp.

Classes resume at the UI Monday, March 23.