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Members of the WPI community line up for COVID-19 testing in Harrington Auditorium.

Members of the WPI community line up for COVID-19 testing in Harrington Auditorium.

WPI Students Develop Lean Testing Ideas

WPI student teams evaluate the university’s COVID-19 testing process, make recommendations

October 30, 2020
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Removing chairs could help. Or eliminating test tube racks. Perhaps even providing visual signs.

Those were just a few of the recommendations from seven undergraduate student teams that recently completed a Business class that sought ways to improve the COVID-19 testing process currently underway at Harrington Auditorium.

The Business 3020 class—titled “Achieving Effective Operations”—typically focuses on a factory simulation where students build clocks, but it was restructured due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Since the clock lab requires close personal contact, I had to find another hands-on lab experience for these industrial engineering and management engineering students, and other majors to participate in,” says Walter Towner, associate teaching professor of Industrial Engineering. “After discussing it with my lab teaching assistants, we settled on analyzing the process flow of the COVID-19 testing in Harrington.”

The 23 students—composed of a mix of 10 majors including Business, Industrial Engineering, Management Engineering, and Robotics Engineering—were guided in a lean manufacturing problem solving event called a “Kaizen,” a Japanese business philosophy of improvement of work practices. The goal was to standardize the way tests are administered, which resulted in the student teams developing solutions to improve the testing process. 

As of Oct. 28, WPI has recorded seven positive tests in the past 30 days, or 0.022 percent of all tests, well below the state’s seven-day positive rate of 1.8 percent.

Even with that low rate, the group wanted to offer suggestions that could enhance the testing regimen. About 5,600 WPI students and faculty are tested each week, and more than 30,000 have been tested over the past 30 days, according to the university’s COVID Testing Dashboard.

WPI has partnered with the Broad Institute, Quest Diagnostics, Reliant Medical Group, and Triumvirate Environmental, Inc. (TEI) to administer WPI’s comprehensive routine testing protocol.

As for the specific Harrington Auditorium site, Broad, a biomedical and genomic organization based in Cambridge, Mass., distributes test kits to WPI and processes the samples and returns results rapidly. According to Broad’s website, it is “…providing COVID-19 screening support for more than 100 public and private colleges and universities.”

Towner now plans to prepare a report for WPI’s Coronavirus Emergency Response Team (CERT) to consider. He noted that the current B-Term BUS3020 class is also studying the COVID-19 testing process.

Towner gave kudos to Associate Dean of Students Emily Perlow, who facilitated a Zoom meeting between the BUS3020 students and some members of the CERT committee for a one-hour “Ask Me Anything” question-and-answer session earlier in A-Term. Some of the questions focused on current sanitation rules in place, existing systems about scheduled appointments, and test kit preparation.

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Associate Dean of Students Emily Perlow alt
Associate Dean of Students Emily Perlow

“One of WPI’s great strengths is that we offer students the ability to tackle real-world problems while learning important professional skills,” says Perlow. “The analysis of the WPI COVID-19 testing site allows for application of course learning to an actual situation. And as expected, the student teams have offered a number of creative, thoughtful ideas for additional efficiencies.” 

Somerville, Mass.-based TEI, which provides sustainable environmental solutions to leading companies in the Life Sciences, Healthcare, Education, and Industrial markets, manages the Harrington testing site for WPI.

WPI Health Services leaders also support the project’s goals.

“We’re always interested in becoming even more efficient with our testing processes, so this student project is a creative way to improve upon the systems we have in place,” says Chloe Green, the COVID-19 testing coordinator at WPI.

From removing chairs to creating infographics

The student teams recently delivered 12-minute presentations via Zoom as professors and other personnel from the Foisie Business School watched. There was then the opportunity for three minutes of questions.

The students used many of the basic industrial engineering methods to analyze a process, including Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control (DMAIC / Six Sigma) Methodology; Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Methodology; Standard Work (and combination sheets); and 7-Step Process Improvement Methodology.

Using the DMAIC method, one team—composed of students Nicole Logrecco, Kara O’Neil, Shannon Reno, and Austin Zhou— recommended taking out the chairs at each testing table.

“Removing the chairs will eliminate time waste of [testing participants] sitting down and having to set all of their items down, along with eliminating the time it takes for staff to wipe down every chair after each use,” says Logrecco, a sophomore majoring in Business and Psychology. “By taking out the chairs, the testing center will be able to get staff and students in and out faster.”

That recommendation proved to be popular as at least three other teams—the Gompei & Co. team composed of students Elise Dehusses, Sarah MacDonald, Kenneth Savage; the RPA Team of Adam Ferrarotti, Reagan Hajjar, and Patrick Roche; and the Lean Mean Tiger Team featuring Thomas Abbott, Kevin Inger, Jon Merchan, and Alyssa Webb —made references to eliminating chairs.

The Busi(ness) Bodies Team of Frank D’Alessio, Allison Steeves, and Sebastian Tommasi recommended various staffing adjustments in an effort to reduce wait time.

The “Lean and Clean Team” of Philip Buchanan, Mustafa Eracar, Tyreese James, and Antoinette Mavrotheris suggested that a visual statement of worker responsibilities be displayed as well as an infographic of the testing process.

Finally, the “Lean Mean Testing Machine” duo of Catherine Salvaggio and Joseph Terwilliger recommended that testers consider overseeing two people at a time. Salvaggio noted that testers have gained experience with watching one person at a time, and may now be ready to move to two. “I feel like once they get over the initial hump of having to watch two (people), it would proceed as normal,” she told the Zoom attendees.

‘Innovative and realistic solutions’

Towner commended the students, and noted that the ideas presented were not all that complicated. “Since this is likely the first time these students have performed this type of work, I think they did a great job presenting their ideas,” he says. “And their suggested lean process improvements would help save time and money if some of them are adopted.”

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WPI junior Zoe Januszewski alt
WPI junior Zoe Januszewski

WPI junior Zoe Januszewski, the lead lab assistant for BUS3020, was impressed with the presentations. “In lab, we emphasized understanding the ‘current state’ before jumping to solutions, so I was pleased to see the waste identification, discussion of issues, and current challenges,” says Januszewski, who is seeking her bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and master’s in Management, through the Foisie Business School’s BS/MS program. “There were some very innovative and realistic solutions proposed.”

She was particularly complimentary about the students’ research tools. “I was impressed with the students’ drive to get real data,” she says. “Many groups would go in to every one of their COVID tests with a stopwatch and an eye for waste. Aside from applying the taught concepts, they dove deeper to truly capture what the cycle times, inventory, and wastes in the process are.” 

Januszewski, 20, of Ventura, Calif., took the course in her freshman year and became “…intrigued by the mindset it instilled in me both when approaching processes but also when moving through life.”

She noted that the project is particularly timely and relevant right now. “Applying lean principles to the COVID-19 testing process is so neat because it allows students to see their work actually be implemented,” said Januszewski.

She invited several faculty and staff from the Foisie Business School to watch the presentations: Industrial Engineering professors Sharon Johnson and Renata Konrad; Professor of Practice Robert Sarnie; Brent French, executive director of Finance and Operations for Foisie Business School; and Marketing instructor Edward Gonsalves. Other lab assistants who helped during lab periods were Anne Davis, Natalie Mohn, John Tanny, and Suzanne Opalka. 

-Andy Baron