Industrial engineering alumnus follows path through GET Ph.D. program to prominence in auto parts industry

For Mark Dolsen, it started as an exit strategy.

In 2008, Dolsen was the general manager of operations at TRQSS Inc., the only remaining seat belt manufacturer in Canada. However, in the midst of an economic downturn, the future of the auto parts industry in southern Ontario looked bleak.

Not ready to retire, but with no experience in other fields, Dolsen thought, “What else am I going to do?”

Going back to school was an option, but it had been a while since he had been a student – he earned his master’s in industrial engineering from Wayne State in 1990. He had considered pursuing a Ph.D., but the timing wasn’t right, as he was a newly married man with a good job at General Motors at that time.

As he pondered his next move, Dolsen’s wife went to Google and searched Ken Chelst, the former ISE department chair and current professor of operations research at Wayne State. Dolsen had long credited Chelst as an influential figure in his education and career.

“I wanted to be a guy like him, an expert in something,” said Dolsen. “I don’t want to push what I know, but rather have people come to me.”

Through that fortuitous search came a video about the Wayne State College of Engineering’s Global Executive Track (GET) Ph.D. program.

“I just decided to apply,” said Dolsen. “I found out at orientation that I was the first person to apply out of the blue without attending an information session.”

The GET Ph.D. program is designed to develop high-level, globally minded technical leaders by providing an opportunity for working executives to merge real-world experience with academic skills. Dolsen entered the 2009 cohort with plenty of both.

In the mid-1980s, Japanese-owned auto parts supplier Tokai Rika established a foothold in Ontario when Toyota began expanding its North American operations. At the same time, GM and Toyota were working together on an initiative called NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) in California.

“At the time, Toyota’s production system and the Japanese manufacturing techniques were really hot in the auto industry,” said Dolsen. “Everybody was trying to figure out what the secret was.”

TRQSS was established in 1987 through a joint venture between Tokai Rika and TRW, a Michigan-based seat belt supplier. Dolsen, having earned his master’s on top of a bachelor’s from Kettering University, came on board in 1990 as a supervisor of engineering and maintenance.

He left in 1999 to join a family owned company in Windsor called Centerline, which specialized in welding equipment. However, in 2003, Tokai Rika was in the process of buying TRQSS outright, and contacted Dolsen about coming back.

Five years later, uncertainty in the auto industry loomed and Dolsen was concerned that it would be intimidating to go back to school after so much time away.

“I had great respect for the professors, and I thought that there wasn’t anything that I could say that these people would find smart,” said Dolsen.

He was amazed how the core courses and modules captured so much of what he had learned and worked on in his career. Each module had reading and application assignments, and Dolsen received positive feedback from the faculty. He did all of the coursework for the GET program in the first two years.

Dolsen wrote two case studies, including one co-authored by Chelst and Ratna Babu Chinnam, co-director of the GET program, that was published in the book, Sustainability in Supply Chain Management Casebook: Applications in SCM. Dolsen feels that was one of his proudest moments.

With a keen interest in operations research, Dolsen’s company became his lab, as he would try out many of his ideas there. In the meantime, he was promoted to vice president of TRQSS in 2012.

As the time came to work on his dissertation, Dolsen knew that, with a job to do, it had to be a project that could feasibly be accomplished on the job and applicable to his company. Realizing that the auto parts industry was not facing extinction after all, he thought about ways to ensure that it would continue to thrive.

Dolsen considered American academic Michael Porter’s three strategies for corporate competitive advantage — lower cost, focus or differentiation. Dolsen looked at the latter in particular.

“A lot of differentiation comes through innovation,” he continued. “Many of us are manufacturing products that you could argue are commoditized — there isn’t much room for product innovation for seat belts, per se.”

In his dissertation, "Developing Innovation Capability in a Mass Production Organization," Dolsen examined two sources of problems — strategic issues identified by management, and technological thresholds identified by production.

“Engineers were the most engaged group of employees, and the source of the most creative solutions. If engineers are working on those problems identified by management and production all the time, then you will develop a capability for innovation that will teach the organization how to adapt,” he concluded.

Running parallel to his progress through the GET program was his continued rise within TRQSS, which had become a leader within Tokai Rika’s global safety business unit. Dolsen was promoted to president in 2014, and he attributes much of his recent success to the GET program, from which he graduated in May 2017 after successfully defending his dissertation in January.

“It was a tremendous outlet for me, and I think going through the program and having to think about how to apply what I knew, and writing case studies, really changed my outlook on my career,” said Dolsen. “I believe it was because of that, that I was chosen for promotion.”

Dolsen no longer sees the GET program as an exit strategy, but rather as a life-changing discovery process.

“One of the things Dr. Chinnam used to say was different about me was that I didn’t have a preconceived idea of what I wanted to get out of this program when I went into it,” said Dolsen. “If you go into it thinking you’ll find the answer, you may or you may not. But what you should find is how to get the answer.”

For more information on the Global Executive Track PhD in Industrial Engineering program, please click here.