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A toy’s story

Business students follow a doll’s journey backward from an Austin Target store to factories in China.

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This story first appeared on the McCombs Today Web site. Read the full article and view more photos from the students’ trip to China.

It is a scene repeated every December in homes across America: on Christmas morning a jubilant child rips through red and green wrapping paper to find the toy at the top of their wish list to Santa.

While the child believes the toy came from Santa’s workshop, the reality is the toy was purchased, along with millions of others at a Target store.

But how did it reach the shelves in the retail store?

Students in a McCombs School of Business introductory operations management class taught by lecturer Michael Hasler, spent five weeks last summer tracking three products — a doll, lawn furniture and a calculator — upstream through the supply chain. The journey started at an Austin Super Target store and ended in a factory in Shenzhen, China.

Four years ago, the Center for International Business Education and Research began collaborating with faculty in supply chain management (before it was a major) on developing a core course students could take abroad. Then in 2009, a meeting between university representatives and Target Corp. supply chain executives at the retail chain’s headquarters in Minneapolis, led to the development of the new McCombs School operations course taught in Hong Kong.

“Relating to an experience is key to adult learning,” said Hasler. “Everyone has been to a Target, but this forces you to look at the whole operation in a new way.”

The class was more than a field trip abroad.

On May 19, students met at a Super Target in Austin to begin the course with a lecture, tour and introduction with Target staff to key concepts such as replenishing floor stock, number of employees staffing the checkout lanes and flow of products for tracking through the supply chain. Next up, was a trip to the Target Regional Distribution Center in Midlothian, near Fort Worth.

About two weeks later, the class toured the Port of Long Beach, a seaport in Long Beach, Calif., and learned the process of unloading and reloading a large shipping container for return to China.

Upon arriving in China, the students had to adjust to 100 percent humidity, the long trek to The Chinese University of Hong Kong, built on the side of a mountain, and a heavy course load on topics ranging from process analysis to line balancing, quality function deployment, bottleneck analysis and more.

Photo of group at Chinese factory

Students begin tour at Hong Kong City Toys. 

“I covered material in one four-hour session that I would normally cover over two weeks,” Hasler said.

The hands-on instruction meant students were able to absorb concepts more quickly.

“We didn’t have to spend time trying to visualize and understand the processes because we were seeing them in real time,” said student Eva Agoulnik.

After almost two weeks in Hong Kong, students ventured to mainland China to visit the manufacturing facilities of Target suppliers. The first stop was Hong Kong City Toys, the doll factory. Students observed the entire process from raw materials to final packaging for a doll set the group had first seen at the Target store in Austin. Following stops at the outdoor furniture and calculator factories, students had two additional weeks of courses, to deepen understanding of the supply chain.

“Moving upstream from a Target store and distribution center in Texas, to a port in California and finally to Chinese factories where products are made, gave me a tangible understanding of international operations that few 20-year-olds ever experience,” said student Jared Pelley. “No matter where I land, this experience will help me see myself as part of the larger whole of an organization’s operations.”

It seems the real-world interaction paid off. The average grade on the final exam for the course was 92, which is 4-8 points higher than the average in the past, said Hasler.

Learn more about this class during a webinar on Dec. 9 titled “Hands-On Learning for Supply Chain Management: A Collaboration Between Target Corp. and The University of Texas at Austin.” Registration information is available online.