A.T. Kearney Student Lab: A Case Study

The U.S. National Park Service and Glacier National Park Conservancy joined the A.T. Kearney Student Lab at CMU for its 10th anniversary year.

Launched in 2007, the A.T. Kearney Student Lab at CMU gives Carnegie Mellon students the opportunity to work with client companies to address real business problems. Tepper School students enrolled in Strategic Management of the Enterprise — co-taught by Sunder Kekre, Vasantrao Dempo Professor, professor of operations management, and Sham Kekre, Distinguished Service Professor of Operations Management — form consulting groups with classmates and students from the Heinz College and undergraduate programs.

Client companies — which this year included ABB, Albertsons, Ameriprise Financial, Campbell Soup, Chico’s, GlaxoSmithKline, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, PNC, PPG, Sensei Labs, Siemens and WESCO — present a business case to the student group. Topics are intended to call upon a variety of skill sets, including analytics and communication.

This fall, the A.T. Kearney Student Lab at CMU celebrated its 10th anniversary. Joseph Raudabaugh, a partner at A.T. Kearney who launched the collaboration in 2007, spoke at a Dec. 9 cocktail reception in the Posner Center about the history of the partnership. Over the past 10 years, he said, the CMU program had involved 941 students and 51 client organizations — numbers that will increase this fall as the student lab begins its 11th year.

 

Glacier National Park

Many of the client companies that have been involved with the student lab return year over year; Siemens has been involved since the first year. But this year was the first for Glacier National Park Conservancy. The conservancy supports Glacier National Park, which spans more than 1 million acres in northwestern Montana, through philanthropic efforts, preservation projects, and research and education programs. As a board member of the conservancy, Raudabaugh had encouraged the organization to participate. “We had a lot of opportunities where I saw that leveraging the lab program would be helpful,” he said.

“It finally came together this year to participate,” said Margaret Notley, secretary of the conservancy’s board of directors. Notley and Raudabaugh worked with Eric Smith of the United States National Park Service to identify and define a suitable problem to bring to the student group.

“In the last seven years, visitation has increased pretty dramatically,” said Smith, deputy superintendent, U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service. “The timing of the lab was great, because 2017 saw a huge increase. In July of 2017, Glacier National Park had over a million visitors.” The increase in numbers dwarf those of other major parks in the region and even surpass larger parks with more infrastructure to handle the visitation like Yosemite and Yellowstone.

“We chose to participate because the park is really in a situation where the amount of visitation we are getting is starting to cause some congestion in specific areas of the park that are impacting visitor experience,” Smith said. “We thought it would be a great idea to get the perspective of bright students to make sure that we’re better able to serve the number of visitors who are coming to Glacier National Park.”

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“We put an enormous amount of time and energy into this project because we cared about what we were doing. We felt like this was really making a tangible contribution.”
— Camden Cornwell, MBA ’18

 

Going-to-the-Sun Road

Visitors to Glacier National Park generally travel along Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 52-mile highway that stretches from West Glacier on U.S. Highway 2 to Saint Mary on U.S. Highway 89. In “Going to the Sun,” a 1984 keepsake book, Rose Houk tells the story of the road’s construction. She quotes Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, from the July 1933 opening: “Going-to-the-Sun Highway fills the need for quick access to high country to see the glory of Glacier’s peaks and crags.”

Planners determined that the road must travel through Logan Pass “because it provided a south or west exposure, which meant the road would be in sun and out of the shadows of surrounding peaks,” Houk writes. Logan Pass is the point of highest elevation on Going-to-the-Sun Road and sits on the Continental Divide of the Americas, the hydrological divide underlying the Rocky Mountains in North America and the Andes in South America.

Logan Pass also represents the largest crowding issue that Glacier National Park faces. “When I was up at Logan Pass, which is a fairly congested pinch point within the park, I would talk to people who felt it was way overcrowded,” Smith said. “The number of visitors they encountered on trails and in visitor’s centers made them feel like they lost something within their visitor experience.”

The visitor’s center at Logan Pass is where most day hikers park, and the National Park Service website advises visitors to use free shuttles rather than parking in the already full visitor’s center lot.

 

Project Sunbound

Smith said that the National Park Service has been working on a corridor management plan for several years to handle the growth in visitation to the park. “We had anecdotal observations that we didn’t really have good data or any kind of simulation to validate,” he said.

Raudabaugh felt that Carnegie Mellon’s student lab was an ideal partner for the park service. “They don’t have an unlimited budget,” he said. “So they’re massively short on technical and analytical activities and skills. They have troves of collected data, but they don’t have enough staff in their network to do the kinds of projects they need to do to apply analytical techniques to improve operational effectiveness or make strategic decisions like they should.”

Notley and Smith came to campus in the fall of 2017 to introduce the problem to the Strategic Management of the Enterprise course. Students were given the opportunity to rank the projects they wanted to work on among more than a dozen options, and were assigned into groups based on their preference. The team assigned to the Glacier National Park project — which would come to be known as Project Sunbound — included MBA students Camden Cornwell, Yi Zhu, Kyle Holmes and Alex Corn, and Heinz College students Rohit Reddy Tippani, Banu Prakash Nallani and Prajakta Kemkar.

Cornwell was selected by his teammates to serve as team leader, responsible for serving as the primary liaison between the clients and his team and for keeping the team on track and on time. “I could not have asked for a better opportunity to put everything from my MBA training into a comprehensive experience,” Cornwell said. “You actually do get to use some of the material that you learned in class and apply it to a real problem.”

The project required students to take what Smith describes as decades worth of raw data and turn it into models that Glacier National Park can use to develop resolutions for park congestion. “Fundamentally, how do you maximize the customer experience with a number of different constraints?” Cornwell said. “You could see this as a system with inflows and outflows of nodes, which classically could be constructed as an operations problem.”

In his role at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas prior to coming to the Tepper School, Cornwell had built strong skills in econometrics. “One of the contributions I was able to make was time series forecasting of park visitation to get a grasp on what we would expect visitation to look like in the park in the next five years if current trends in park visitation continue,” he said. “It gave us a sense of scope and urgency for the problem that they’re facing.”

As team leader, he was responsible for defining the project scope. “The benefit of a strategy course is to help you develop a framework by which to tackle this problem,” he said. “It helped to keep the project manageable.”

 

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“This is the first time I’ve actually felt like we were bringing in outside bright minds into a collaborative effort to work out one of the main park issues.”
— Margaret Notley, secretary, Glacier National Park Conservancy Board of Directors

Don’t Pave Paradise

When Smith presented the problem to the student group, he intentionally avoided reporting on the solutions the park service had already considered. “We really wanted to challenge their innovation and let them look at their own ideas.” The park had worked with universities in Montana, which involved researchers who were already familiar with the park and came with preconceived notions about what should happen.

In particular, Smith noted, the park service had already rejected the notion of adding more parking spaces. “We’ve heard the expression around the parks, ‘You can’t pave your way out of the visitation problem,’ meaning a few extra parking spaces won’t solve the problem,” he said. “I think the biggest eye-opener for me was that by analyzing and modeling that, the students showed that even doubling parking throughout the corridor in Glacier National Park was only a single-digit improvement in turnover inside the park.”

Project Sunbound included two separate paths of analysis, Cornwell said. Zhu developed an optimization model to seek an operational solution to the congestion issue, while Corn created a virtual simulation tracking traffic and parking patterns. “One of the great things about the project is that the data was public,” Cornwell said. “It was incredibly well-organized, right out of the gate.” He noted this was not the case for many of his classmates working with private companies, which often take longer to turn around proprietary information.

At Project Sunbound’s final presentation to Smith and Notley on Dec. 8, Zhu presented the optimization model he and his teammates built to demonstrate the effect of implementing metered parking. Requiring visitors to pay for parking, he said, would reduce their parking time and consequently increase turnover, meaning that the park could more readily accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors.

 

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“It’s amazing the amount of data that the students crunched through in such a short amount of time.”
— Eric Smith, deputy superintendent, U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service

Data-Driven Decisions

The data that Project Sunbound offered to the park service will drive the final stages of the park service’s corridor management plan, Smith said, reporting that the plan should be complete by the end of the calendar year. Changes like these, he noted, can be challenging for a federal agency due to the amount of public input that is required. “Now, through this lab, we have some hard data and some real scientific evaluation of that data in modeling that we can present to the public, and have the public be more comfortable with the decisions that we’re making.”

Project Sunbound worked with software from AIMMS, which Smith reported had reached out to the park service about continuing to provide data analysis services. Smith noted that the park lacks staff with the programming knowledge necessary to harness the software, and he would like to continue to work with business students to address congestion issues: While Cornwell and his team focused on the primary road, Smith said there are three other areas in the park facing serious congestion issues. He also would like to optimize the park’s operations and staffing.

The park service hopes to be one of the organizations that returns to the lab year after year. “If there’s a way that Glacier — both conservancy and park — could become a regular in the way that some of the other corporations are involved, I think that would be a fantastic outcome,” Notley said. “I was absolutely impressed by the caliber of students, the caliber of support from the faculty and the entire program. It was superb.”

Notley also reported that Glacier National Park Conservancy had benefitted from the students’ work. “We also gained some insight for our own organization and operations in terms of the retail traffic,” she said. The conservancy worked this spring with the A.T. Kearney Student Lab at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to improve its reach. Raudabaugh said that, although the park sees more than 3 million visitors each year, the conservancy has less than 6,000 people on its donor list. The Kellogg group analyzed ways the conservancy might be able to increase its reach.

For Cornwell, the experience was a significant opportunity to practice managing clients and projects. After earning his MBA in May, he moved into a career as an investment banker with Houlihan Lokey, the top adviser for mergers and acquisitions and for global restructuring in the United States.

“This was my first experience on a serious project as a team lead,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to be with me through this process. I had a number of people with different skill sets and different perspectives who just were able to tackle this problem in different ways, and they were able to come together and work really hard.”