Steinway Artist Brings Case Study to Life for MBA Students

Professors often use case studies to bring context to complex management concepts. Assistant Professor Enno Siemsen went one step further. He brought a case study to life by inviting a renowned pianist to his class.

As part of the Global Operations Strategy class he teaches, Siemsen incorporates a case titled "Technology and Quality at Steinway & Sons" to demonstrate the different dimensions of quality and how Steinway and Yamaha compete for customers along them.

"The case talks a lot about Steinway artists and how picky they are," says Siemsen, a member of the Supply Chain and Operations faculty. "They'll go into a showroom of Steinway and they'll go from piano to piano for four hours before finding the right piano even though they are all technically the same specifications produced in the same process in the same factory. I thought, 'wouldn't it be great to have a Steinway artist talk about this?'"

Siemsen approached University of Minnesota School of Music Professor Paul Shaw - one of the approximately 1,600 Steinway artists worldwide - about speaking to the class. Shaw loved the idea and offered to host the 25 MBA students in the Lloyd Ultan Recital Hall. There, with two Steinway pianos on stage, he discussed how the instruments differed and then played each so the students could actually hear the difference and understand how variance in outcome could be appreciated by customers.

The ensuing discussions on how standardization versus customization can lead to different outcomes resonated with Shaw, who likened it to what artists deal with when performing.

"One of the tightropes performers walk is the reliability of playing what you have rehearsed versus taking a chance and a risk on trying something new that comes to mind in the live performance," says Shaw. "It's that tension that makes for an exciting performance."

Seimsen hopes the students will similarly reflect upon what quality and variation mean in their professional lives.

"There are Part-Time MBA students who work in Twin Cities companies that produce products, and for all of them, quality plays a role," he says. "I just hope that this class sticks in the back of their heads the next time that they visit the quality of their product."

That message was received by Part-Time MBA student Stacy Aoudia. "It was a very powerful lesson in 'know your customer, know your product, and know the connection,'" she says.

"Most of us come from work environments that are focused on speed, efficiency, and cost control. Many of us have built careers around reducing variation and waste. In the case of Steinway, it is the variability and the manual process that produces amazing pianos. This was an important lesson to learn and a delightful way to learn it."

For Professor Shaw, the Global Operations Strategy class was an eye-opening look at how both businesses and business schools operate.

"Sometimes I get the impression that in business the ultimate goal is just to make money," he states. "It's heartening to know that in a business school you're focusing on quality and I had a hand in participating with the business leaders of the future and making sure they produce something that customers are happy with."

"The core of business is not to produce products cheaply but to solve problems in society," adds Siemsen. "Quality is an essential component of that."