Innovation: Reaching Out Across Campus

The Neeley School of Business and the College of Science & Engineering are next door on campus, but it can seem like light years separate them. Until one innovative, interdisciplinary project brought them together.

May 15,  2018

By Elaine Cole and Andrea Stafford

The Art Deco Sinclair Building in downtown Fort Worth is undergoing a remarkable transformation, and TCU MBAs and engineering students are in the thick of it. 

The 16-story 1930s building in Sundance Square is being converted into a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel. The intelligent building will feature advanced technologies for state-of-the-art customer experience and energy savings. The innovations are mind boggling: refrigerators without Freon, energy-producing sports equipment, digital showers, and savvy electric mirrors for watching television, ordering room service, connecting to phones, adjusting lighting, checking the weather or calling for a car. 

Turning a historic building into what Sinclair Holdings President Farukh Aslam calls “the first true intelligent building” requires a combination of systems, vendors, designers, technicians and builders. 

It also requires an innovative approach for managing the various parts of the project. 

When Sinclair Holdings tapped Byrne Construction, an award-winning business with roots in Fort Worth for 95 years, construction manager Brian Broom turned to TCU to help him transform the 88-year-old building into a 21st-century marvel in less than a year. 

“We are changing the industry with this project,” Broom said. “We needed resources.” 

Mike Harville, Professor of Professional Practice in the Department of Engineering, learned about the project from Broom and sensed Byrne could benefit from a supply-chain focused solution. He contacted Ed Riefenstahl, director of MBA experiential learning in the TCU Neeley School of Business. Together, Harville and Riefenstahl recruited a team of three MBAs – Vivek Cheekoti, Terrance Lu and Sachin Sharma – and two engineering juniors – Cole Graham and Bill Pickett.

“I have always wanted to have interdisciplinary projects for Neeley & Associates MBA Consulting,” Riefenstahl said. “This paid project with Byrne Construction gave us the opportunity to start and hopefully maintain a partnership with the College of Science & Engineering.”

The team was advised by Brandon Journay, second-year MBA and a principal in Neeley & Associates Consulting, plus Harville, Riefenstahl and faculty subject matter experts.  

“We didn’t get too deep into the technical side of engineering,” Journay said, “just enough that these guys [Graham and Pickett] weren’t going over our heads, and on the business side, as MBAs we were able to manage the project, make sure everyone was doing their part, and then put it all together.”  

“We hope that projects like this really complement the experiential learning our students get through the engineering senior design experience,” Harville said. 

The team focused on improving efficiency and reducing waste by organizing each of the subcontractors’ tasks so the building restoration will finish on schedule and on budget. They made both short- and long-term recommendations, removed constraints, and provided regular updates for the subcontractor scheduling board.

“I told Mike my only worry was that they would give me more brain power than I could keep up with, and they did,” Broom said. “They were always asking, ‘Mr. Broom, why aren’t you doing this?’ We eliminated so much waste. They are doing such a good job, it’s like hanging on to the tail of a tiger.”

The student team worked with Byrne Construction to implement the lean construction process, an industrial methodology of principles and practices that helps streamline a project from start to finish. The process draws heavily from the expertise of supply-chain principles, which the TCU MBA students brought to the table. 

The TCU student engineers, who understand the construction world a bit more, talked with the various trade professionals such as electricians and plumbers to understand what they were doing. They communicated that information to the supply-chain focused MBA students, and then the team worked together to quantify and determine how to make everything operate more efficiently.

“The project has been unique and something our students have not done before in an interdisciplinary internship capacity where engineering and business overlap,” Harville said. 

The students learned as much from each other as they did from the project. 

“We definitely learned more about supply-chain,” Graham said. “Before this I had no exposure to business at all. This has opened my eyes to how their side of things work.”

“They were always there with the numbers, getting the graphs right,” Cheekoti said of the engineering students. “It was refreshing to work with someone who knows about construction.”

“It was also good to work with people of different ages for different perspectives,” added  Lu. “They are 20-something and we are in our 30s. They see a different angle to a problem.”

The two schools may not teach students the same skills and knowledge, but the team shared a common goal: giving their best for the project.

One recommendation the TCU team made was to eliminate the usual 30-minute weekly subcontractor meeting and instead meet daily for five-to-six minutes. 

“Now we are communicating more and on a daily basis,” Broom said. “We were not doing that before they came.”

“I learned that communication is key,” Graham said. “As engineers we can be kind of introverted. We saw very clearly that communication plays a pivotal role in business.”

Pickett agreed: “Especially the experience of telling guys how to do their job, even though they have been doing it a while. But us showing them a more efficient way, that’s going to help all of us in the long run.”

“We take communication for granted in business,” Cheekoti said. “We think meetings will address a lot of issues, but you still need to communicate through different avenues so you don’t cut into other people’s work. You have to be straight with them on what they want and what you want.”

Cheekoti was taking an MBA project management class while working on the project, which helped him understand Broom’s terms and plans more quickly, as well as the reasons for certain actions. 

“Why is a new schedule coming? Oh, because we are trying to fast-track things. I wouldn’t have made that connection if not for this project and that class,” Cheekoti said.

Sharma agreed. “Learning a concept is one thing, but applying it in the real world is another. Byrne is giving us that platform. We are not only giving them value, but it is adding value to us in terms of making us ready for the business world.”

The team honed their organizational and communications skills, but the key was implementation. 

“We weren’t just telling them this way is more efficient. We were staying with them and making sure,” Pickett said.

“At end of day everyone is there to make sure the project is going in a forward direction,” Sharma said. “The MBA program teaches us that in a business team you are working with 10 different people with 10 different backgrounds, but you all come together on the same page and give a one- or two-sentence paragraph to the client to tell them this is what needs to be improved or needs to be done. That has been the practical experience we are learning with this project.”

The students provided a “Lessons Learned” spreadsheet, a semester-long effort resulting from weekly meetings. Each meeting involved trying out a new process to see how it worked and quantifying the success through key performance indicators. The students kept a running list of suggestions made to Byrne Construction to quantify the difference of the impact and efficiency they contributed to the project.’

“This paid project was an innovative opportunity to not only work with a construction company, but also the business school,” Harville said. “The sooner engineering students understand these interdisciplinary projects, the more prepared they are for their career.” 

He added: “We’re hoping that this initial project is the beginning of a longer-term program between Byrne, Neeley and our engineering department.”

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