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Dashboard professionals

MSBA students from Terry College built custom data app for national bus manufacturer
Tuesday, July 9, 2019 - 10:09am
Matt Weeks
Stock image of a yellow school bus

When bus maker Blue Bird had a problem with the peaks and valleys of their production schedule, they turned to students in Terry’s Master of Science in Business Analytics program for a solution.

The dilemma stemmed from their business model. Because each bus Blue Bird makes is built to order, and because schools tend to order buses only at certain times of year, many employees had stretches of time where the workload slowed to a crawl. The rest of the year, they were slammed.

The company approached Terry’s MSBA to ask for help finding a solution. The executives wanted to see if there was a way to unpack the complexities of bus design and find a ‘standard bus,’ that could be completed in the slow season and sold later.

A team of 11 MSBA students met with top executives as part of their graduate program’s capstone project.

“We realized pretty quickly that we didn’t have enough domain knowledge to say, ‘You should have one standard bus for every state or every region,’ so we had to do something else,” said project leader Courtney Weaver. “So what we did was to develop an online tool that allows them to better track their data and see it in a variety of ways.”

The Terry team compiled Blue Bird’s data into a digital dashboard they created. The customizable platform allows the bus maker to spot trends and identify common configurations, leading to improved efficiency.

“The dashboard lets you pull up information at the region and unit levels. For example, you can search for what options — like seat belts, windows or air brakes — are included in 75% of the buses. Then you can start to ask why it’s 75% and not 100%,” Weaver said. “Or you can look at state-level data, and see that every bus you build for school districts in Arkansas has these certain characteristics. Or you can see that if a bus has option A, there’s a 98% chance it will also include option C.”

The team traveled to Blue Bird’s headquarters in Macon to present their dashboard to the company’s executives. And, if the chief financial officer’s reaction is any indication, the company was handed a smart, new tool it will use.

“We were really impressed by the approach that was taken, by the clarity of thought and the overall presentation. We plan to use the approach and the tool that was developed to determine if there is really a ‘standard bus,’” said Phil Tighe, CFO of Blue Bird. “Our people at Blue Bird are very excited about this initiative.”

Not only did the project give Blue Bird better data to make strategic decisions, it provided MSBA students with real-world consulting experience.

“My biggest takeaway is that data can be very ugly. I knew that before, but really getting into it and seeing the 33,000 rows of data — that was a lot to go through,” Weaver said. “I think we all learned a lot from really working with a client and learning how to communicate with them.”

The MSBA program is a one-year interdisciplinary course of study that develops technical expertise working with big data in a business context. It involves two semesters of study, during which students learn about the collection, storage, analysis, interpretation and visualization of data as well as the predominant programming languages in the field — SQL, R and Python. More information is available on the program’s website.

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