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Chapter: Operations Research: An Introduction : What Is Operations Research?

More than Just Mathematics

Because of the mathematical nature of OR models, one tends to think that an OR study is always rooted in mathematical analysis.



Because of the mathematical nature of OR models, one tends to think that an OR study is always rooted in mathematical analysis. Though mathematical modeling is a cornerstone of OR, simpler approaches should be explored first. In some cases, a "common sense" solution may be reached through simple observations. Indeed, since the human element invariably affects most decision problems, a study of the psychology of people may be key to solving the problem. Three illustrations are presented here to support this argument.



                                                       1. Responding to complaints of slow elevator service in a large office building, the OR team initially perceived the situation as a waiting-line problem that might re-quire the use of mathematical queuing analysis or simulation. After studying the be-havior of the people voicing the complaint, the psychologist on the team suggested installing full-length mirrors at the entrance to the elevators. Miraculously the com-plaints disappeared, as people were kept occupied watching themselves and others while waiting for the elevator.


                                                       2. In a study of the check-in facilities at a large British airport, a United States-Canadian consulting team used queuing theory to investigate and analyze the situa-tion. Part of the solution recommended the use of well-placed signs to urge passengers who were within 20 minutes from departure time to advance to the head of the queue and request immediate service. The solution was not successful, because the passengers, being mostly British, were "conditioned to very strict queuing behavior" and hence were reluctant to move ahead of others waiting in the queue.

 3. In a steel mill, ingots were first produced from iron ore and then used in the manufacture of steel bars and beams. The manager noticed a long delay between the ingots production and their transfer to the next manufacturing phase (where end prod-ucts were manufactured). Ideally, to reduce the reheating cost, manufacturing should start soon after the ingots left the furnaces. Initially the problem was perceived as a line-balancing situation, which could be resolved either by reducing the output of ingots or by increasing the capacity of the manufacturing process. The OR team used simple charts to summarize the output of the furnaces during the three shifts of the day. They discovered that, even though the third shift started at 11:00 PM., most of the ingots were produced between 2:00 and 7:00 A.M. Further investigation revealed that third-shift operators preferred to get long periods of rest at the start of the shift and then make up for lost production during morning hours. The problem was solved by "leveling out" the production of ingots throughout the shift.


Three conclusions can be drawn from these illustrations:


1. Before embarking on sophisticated mathematical modeling, the OR team should explore the possibility of using "aggressive" ideas to resolve the situation. The solution of the elevator problem by installing mirrors is rooted in human psychology rather than in mathematical modeling. It is also simpler and less costly than any recommendation a mathematical model might have produced. Perhaps this. is the reason OR teams usually include the expertise of "outsiders" from non-mathernatical fields (psychology in the case of the elevator problem). This point was recognized and implemented by the first OR team in Britain during World War II.

2. Solutions are rooted in people and not in technology. Any solution that does not take human behavior into account is apt to fail. Even though the mathematical solution of the British airport problem may have been sound, the fact that the consulting team was not aware of the cultural differences between the United States and Britain (Americans and Canadians tend to be less formal) resulted in an unimplementable recommendation.

3. An OR study should never start with a bias toward using a specific mathematical tool before its use can be justified. For example, because linear programming is a successful technique, there is a tendency to use it as the tool of choice for modeling "any" situation. Such an approach usually leads to a mathematical model that is far re-moved from the real situation. It is thus imperative that we first analyze available data, using the simplest techniques where possible (e.g., averages, charts, and histograms), with the objective of pinpointing the source of the problem. Once the problem is de-fined, a decision can be made regarding the most appropriate tool for the soiution.2 In the steel mill problem, simple charting of the ingots production was all that was need-ed to clarify the situation.

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