On path to Black Belt certification, UB students overcome pandemic to deliver industry projects

UB TCIE's Peter Baumgartner, far right, mentors Fanni Kozma and Manimanjari Vemula at Sumitomo Rubber USA before the COVID-19 shutdown.

UB TCIE's Peter Baumgartner, far right, mentors Fanni Kozma and Manimanjari Vemula at Sumitomo Rubber USA before the COVID-19 shutdown. Credit: Tracy Puckett.

By Tracy Puckett

Release Date: May 18, 2020

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“Right before the pandemic hit, everyone was on board with the project. ”
Fanni Kozma, master's student
Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The journey began nearly nine months ago. Seven engineering students spent the last few days of summer vacation studying a highly structured problem-solving methodology and learning the ins and outs of a statistical software.

This was the first step in pursuit of a highly regarded industry distinction: Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification.

The voyage, guided by UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (UB TCIE) in coordination with the UB Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, requires balancing an academic load with 14 to 16 hours of work per week on a company-sponsored project. Over two semesters, the students apply data-centric tools to solve a specific issue.

Spring break’s arrival marked the home stretch, leaving about 1 1/2 months to tie up loose ends, cement the root cause of the problem, and determine and install the right solution.

But within a matter of days, the coronavirus and ensuing shutdowns threw a major curveball.  

“At first I thought, ‘I am going to fail. What have these seven months come to’?” shares Fanni Kozma, on realizing she would remain at home in Westchester County, except for a 24-hour trip to gather belongings left in Buffalo.

As the liaison and program administrator, UB TCIE worked with each sponsor company to ensure work could continue remotely. Kozma and her counterparts were forced to adapt.

“They had to get creative about how they collected data,” says Peter Baumgartner, UB TCIE’s Director of Operational Excellence and one of the Master Black Belts who served as a program mentor.

“They also had to delegate some of the work. That’s not something I think a lot of students have exposure to,” he continues, explaining the program typically entails the student completing the work themselves, including collecting and analyzing data and implementing improvements. “They had to take on more tasks as a project leader than they normally would. I think that will benefit them in their careers.”

Global pandemic or not, Baumgartner says students involved in industry projects face challenges. Accessing data can be cumbersome. Or, company priorities and policies impede progress. Coronavirus-imposed limitations only heightened the necessity for students to maintain two-way communication.  

Kozma and Manimanjari Vemula – both assigned to Sumitomo Rubber USA in Tonawanda – credit company employees and UB TCIE support for helping them through the struggles.

(For more info on their back story working with Sumitomo, visit this link.)

“I was literally losing my mind” at the outset of stay-at-home measures, Vemula says, admitting she wondered whether her work was a waste. Baumgartner’s calm demeanor soothed her worries. “Whenever there was a roadblock, he helped me find new possibilities.”

Such reassurances of “we’ll figure this out” are core to the program. UB TCIE is a safety net, its mentors serving as a sounding board and encouraging students to take risks.   

Different variables left the two young women without the right data or enough of it to verify speculations with certainty. Vemula’s project was aimed at reducing scrap; Kozma’s was to decrease a machine’s changeover time variations. Circumstances required simulating data, based on detailed analyses, to project outcomes of a recommended solution.     

“The processes they defined for improvement have been well received by company leadership,” says Anthony Lauria, a Sumitomo industrial engineer involved in project oversight and support. “We will be pursuing the implementation and sustainment of those process improvements going forward.”

As Kozma and Vemula immerse themselves in job hunting, they leave UB with master’s degrees, Black Belt certification and a wealth of insights.

They now understand the diligence required to complete a project correctly, and the value of developing relationships and receiving input from all employee levels. Patience is important, but so too is the ability to be firm and direct in moving an initiative forward. And you can’t dispute data.  

Both draw parallels between the workplace – under normal circumstances – and coronavirus-induced realities.

For one, their time at Sumitomo has taught them how much lies beyond their control. Vemula says accepting that fact made it easier to tolerate constraints imposed by the pandemic.

Kozma points to communities rallying together during this stressful time. She relates such generosity to Sumitomo employees offering her project assistance.

“Right before the pandemic hit, everyone was on board with the project,” she says. “Solutions started arising from people working together who don’t usually work together. They came together for one goal.”

Do they think a Black Belt will make the difference in securing a full-time job? Not necessarily, but it might move their resumes to the top of the interview pile.

Vemula says the program has changed how she thinks, which she believes “is going to help me do better in interviews. It has changed my thought process.”

Kozma agrees that the experience has altered her reasoning, too. “I think it is a huge advantage in how I’m going to approach work. Six Sigma is how I will solve problems.”

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