Dr. Aldo McLean invited Gloria Portillo of Miller Industries Towing Equipment Inc., one of the strongest collaborators and supporters of the Engineering Technology Management program, to speak about effective problem solving to his ETEM 4560 Quality Improvement class on Wednesday, October 22.

According to Dr. McLean, Portillo is “a black belt”—referring to the “Black Belt Certification” from The Council for Six Sigma Certification, which is concerned with quality improvement in manufacturing and service industries.  Portillo studied industrial engineering in Mexico and has a background in the automotive industry.  Currently, she is in charge of the manufacturing service group at Miller Industries, which looks at how to improve manufacturing processes.

Drawing on her background in the automotive industry, Portillo used examples of car maintenance to present students with guiding principles and steps for effective problem solving.  She began by discussing four guiding principles: a clear vision for what is to be achieved, devising a solid strategy, practical systems or ways to solve the problem, and a commitment to perform “consistency of execution.”  She then discussed, in detail, steps for effective problem solving using easy-to-understand examples for each principle.  These steps included practical points such as identifying, analyzing, and describing the problem, looking for root cause, developing solutions, and measuring results.  According to Portillo, “80% of problems can be solved very quickly using this simple methodology.”

Students frequently interrupted Portillo’s presentation to ask questions about specific problems, actual or theoretical, which fostered a discussion that dug deeper into the problem solving process as it progressed.

Portillo often responded with examples from her own experience.  “You will never be bored when solving issues in the industry,” Portillo said in response to a student’s question about how many problems she deals with on a weekly basis.  “You often have to look at an issue multiple times from multiple angles, and you must be very careful about the information you’re receiving—you must often request more information,” she said.

“How do you go about presenting a solution?” one student asked.  “Document everything—if it’s not documented, it never happened,” Portillo said.

As the discussion proceeded, it became clear how simple, practical principles can help solve even the most difficult problems.  Portillo concluded her presentation with a problem-solving activity to ensure she had conveyed the information adequately and allow students to practice applying the steps they had discussed.

Commenting on the students’ interaction, Portillo said: “It’s really good to see that you guys are interested, and it’s exciting for me because you will be the next engineers out there.”

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