Monthly Archives: July 2015

What the heck is operations research?

Over the years I’ve worked in the field, I’ve heard many, many definitions of Operations Research (OR).  Most of them are more descriptions of aspects of operations research than actual definitions.  Some have been developed by very prestigious, knowledgeable, academic authors and others by our professional society.  Perhaps the most unfortunate, in my opinion, was an attempt by our professional society to describe our field in terms to which the general public could relate: “the Science of Better”.   Really, we couldn’t do better than that?

Back in 1946, two practitioners named Philip Morse and George Kimball offered “Operations Research is a scientific method of providing executive departments with a quantitative basis for decisions regarding the operations under their control.”  Of course, by the time my friend Dr. Ben Cummings gave me a copy of the book, Methods of Operations Research[1], I had made several attempts to explain what I did to friends and family who seemed to comprehend what I was getting at in my wordy explanations.  Another friend, Floyd, used to say…”Bill will never use three words when ten will do”!  Thanks Floyd!  OK, I guess I’ve proven his point.

What I like about the Morse and Kimball definition is that it is a concise statement that emphasizes the important points.  In fact, OR is only one method supporting executive decision making as emphasized by their use of the words “a scientific method” rather than “the scientific method”.   The other words I would have bolded in their book are, “quantitative basis” and “operations under their control”.

It is true that there have been successful forays into the realm of ‘qualitative’ approaches to supporting decision makers.  Of note is that Warren Buffett uses qualitative data to support his investment decisions.  It certainly seems to have worked for him.  A typical example of qualitative data that are subject to analysis is interview data.   OR practitioners employ this qualitative method to understand the problem and problem constraints better; to help frame the problem space in order to gather the appropriate quantitative data.  What should be emphasized about the OR approach is that the decision recommendation is ultimately based upon the analysis of quantifiable data, not on intuition or “gut feeling”.  To be sure, there are examples of business and military leaders who have developed remarkable abilities to ‘sense’ the right answer.  Far more examples exist of successful executives who rely upon quantifiable data to make their decisions, even if they use it to ‘validate’ their gut feeling.

Another practical and effective use of the ‘qualitative techniques’ is to help define the constraints which limit decision options.  This gets at the “operations under their control” issue as well as others.  An example is a production decision which is limited by the amount of time, production facilities, personnel, and raw materials required.  So far, we haven’t figured out how to get even robots to work more than 24 hours in a given day!

Finally, returning to the terms “a scientific method”.  As Morse and Kimball themselves point out in their book, those words imply a rigorous, structured approach to problem solving using techniques that have been carefully validated by other mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.

So, once again, I’ve validated Floyd’s comment by expanding upon the perfectly stated description by Morse and Kimball.  Still, I hope by now I’ve conveyed what operations research is better than the “science of better”.

Here’s a YouTube video that I thought was particularly good.  INFORMS created it to address the question of ‘What is OR?’ along with the folks from bnet.  Enjoy.


[1] Morse, Philip; Kimball, George, Methods of Operations Research, MIT Press, 1951  (The original printing was classified and dates back to 1946.  The unclassified version was published by MIT Press and Wiley in 1951.  The eighth printing was published in 1962.  In 2003, the book was reprinted with an introduction by Saul Gass (1926-2013))