Darden Students Travel the World to Experience Hands-On Continuous Improvement

Since 2006, nearly 150 MBA students from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business have applied what they’ve learned in class to ‘kaizen’ projects around the world. In collaboration with the Danaher Corporation, a global science and technology company, the students have worked in Danaher facilities in this country and abroad as part of directed studies for Second Year students and a non-credit experience for First Year students.

Kaizen — Japanese for continuous improvement — was created in Japan after World War II, and in the 1980s, Danaher became one of the first North American companies to use the principles of kaizen in its worldwide facilities. Kaizen applies to every employee in an organization, from upper management to the cleaning crew and every process from company culture and productivity to safety and leadership. Key to kaizen is that all employees must make changes on a regular basis: always tweaking productivity, safety and effectiveness while reducing waste and looking for breakthrough improvements.

Because of kaizen and Danaher, every January for the past seven years, Darden has taken 10–15 First and Second Year students to a Danaher facility for a one-week on-site opportunity to work closely with its employees. Adhering to a Danaher-designed charter that lays out several specific problems to be solved and the goals for the week-long experience, students say it’s a great opportunity to see continuous improvement in action. Originally focused only on manufacturing, the student events have been broadened to include kaizen activities in sales, marketing and R&D.

The Darden/Danaher collaboration began in 2005 when Kevin Klau (MBA ’02), senior vice president of global business units for Danaher’s water quality business, Hach-Lange, joined Darden Professor Elliott Weiss for a class discussion. Over lunch, they brainstormed the kaizen idea as a way to expand their partnership and soon after “we ran with it,” he said. Klau believes the partnership between Danaher and Darden goes beyond a traditional business school/company relationship, and that both sides continue to benefit.

“Danaher benefits from the energy, creativity, and leadership that Darden students possess, and we continue to see it first hand during the kaizen weeks. Those attributes align well with Danaher’s culture, and keep us coming back to hire at Darden,” he said. Counting the seven students who will join Danaher in 2012, the company has hired 60 Darden students to join full-time since 2002.

Darden alumnus Rob Collier (MBA ’10), who has worked at Danaher since graduation, describes his Darden/Danaher projects — which took him to North Carolina, Colorado and the Czech Republic — as “particularly unique learning experiences. Students step away from the classroom where they are mentored by renowned Darden faculty in operations research and consulting, and they venture out on the shop floor to collaborate with Danaher, a global leader in operational excellence.”

Danaher’s more than 600 subsidiary companies design, manufacture and market innovative products and services to professional, medical, industrial and commercial customers worldwide. Weiss, who teaches in the Operations area and has accompanied students to most of the Danaher sites, said he’s learned as much as the students from these experiences. “I think these kaizen projects have improved the quality of the operations program at Darden because they expose all of us to cutting-edge experiences out in the field.”

Darden Dean Bob Bruner, who visited a Danaher facility during a kaizen week in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2010, said, “With the Darden-Danaher partnership, we help students discover how a firm may not only survive but also prosper through the intense episodes of industrial transformation.”

Amanda Gingras, who will graduate on 20 May, confirms the dean’s statement. She traveled to China last year to participate in a Danaher-sponsored kaizen project. She says the opportunity allowed her to learn about both the operations of the plant where she worked and also about the Chinese culture. “At the Danaher operating company where we worked on our kaizen project, we increased productivity within the manufacturing cell by 7%,” she said. “We changed the order of some processes, made tools more easily accessible and incorporated rotating shelves to allow for less travel time within the company cell, essentially reducing the time it takes to assemble a product. It was a great opportunity to travel internationally, work in an operations role and interact with Chinese employees.”

Darden’s Global MBA for Executives program will take 13 students to China this month to participate in a kaizen project in Shanghai at a Danaher facility.

To learn more about Danaher, please visit their website.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Darden School of Business
University of Virginia