MSOM Fellow, 2000
What was OM like early in my career and how has it changed?
My career in what is now called OM began about fifty years ago. Back then, the name Operations Management did not exist. Production Management was what it was called. Texts focused on manufacturing, and how to get product through the factory. There was nothing on services and almost nothing on supply chains (indeed the term “supply chain” did not exist).
50 years ago there were no computers anywhere near the shop floor. Their means of data input, punched cards or paper tape, did not cope with oil or grease. Production managers acquired information about what was happening by walking around the shop, or using expediters to walk around once or twice a day. The expediter would record in a little black notebook where each job was, whether it was being worked on, or whether it was just sitting somewhere with nothing happening to it. Sales and production coordination was achieved by a daily face-to-face meeting between somebody from sales and the production controller. Inventory movement was recorded on cards. There would be a minimum stock level that triggered reorder, usually based on a simple rule like keeping a safety stock of two weeks demand and with an order quantity equal to four weeks demand. The same rule would be used for almost all parts stocked. The EOQ formula was known, but with no cheap calculators, the square root calculation made it of questionable use.
Shop floor data collection and tracking of jobs have changed totally. Sophisticated material management software is in widespread use. Intranets and internets connect all members of the production organization, their suppliers and their customers. However, fifty years ago the production manager looked not just for the hard information that today is captured by the tracking system, but also for the soft information such as whether there is talk of a strike at a supplier, or whether a key worker has a hangover and should not be trusted with a critical job. I sometimes wonder whether we are now less aware of the soft information so operations management has not become as simple as it should, given all the computing and data collection power that is now devoted to it. Nevertheless, in the last fifty years the major changes in OM in manufacturing and services have probably been principally due to the IT revolution. It enabled advances like FMS and integrated supply chains, and IT made it possible to implement OR models for forecasting and inventory control in a consistent manner.
Academic OM has evolved from the use of very simple ideas like setting safety stocks based on demand variability, and using the transshipment problem to find which factories should supply which customers, to a mathematically sophisticated approach that draws on quite advanced mathematics and economics. Much of our literature is no longer accessible to practitioners, so there is the risk that it may indeed be irrelevant to practice.
Sometimes I wonder whether something has been lost through the change of name to Operations Management from Production Management. Operations describes what happens on the shop floor, but does it fit white collar work and design, where the emphasis is on functions that somehow add value, the essential idea behind the word “production”.
What is my philosophy towards my research and how has it developed over the years?
I’ve always tried to motivate my research by real world issues and challenges. This has meant that of particular value to me have been those relatively few people who work in industry, yet understand the research process. Such people have been a major source of my better research contributions. Next, having identified an interesting real world issue there is the process where one tries to abstract from it and develop a meaningful model. Knowing what to include and what to exclude of all the real world complexity seems to require informed judgment where one balances one’s understanding of the critical real world issues with the strengths and limitations of the different modeling techniques in which one is reasonably proficient.
After one develops a model and gained insight from it, then it is useful to go back to one’s industry contacts and check whether one’s new insights are perceived a relevant. Often this is the point where the really interesting and relevant research challenges are identified.
What is a good research topic, and how do I find it?
While I know what a good research topic is when I see it, what is it that I look for? First of all is the requirement that the problem matters to somebody else but me. Society, an industry, a firm, a hospital, etc. have met the problem and feels that understanding it better is worthwhile. The second feature for me is that the problem be one on which I can use my modeling skills, or I have to learn new modeling skills to address it. The problem should not be trivial, but nor should the model be so complex that I cannot solve it or even if I can solve it I cannot gain any insight from the solution within a reasonable period of time. I would like to be able to write a paper about what I have done on the problem and get the paper published in the appropriate place, which does not necessarily mean an A journal. Sometimes if my approach is speculative and limited, an appropriate conference can be better. And sometimes only a book will do justice to what I have done.
Research topics can be found in many places: a casual conversation at a conference or at a professional society lunch meeting, questions from students in a class that I’ve taught. My research students have been the source of good problems, particularly if they do a detailed study of a situation in industry. At one stage in my career I used to think that almost any field study directed at productivity or quality improvement in a reasonably well managed mid- to large-sized factory could lead to a good research topic.
My experience has been that refereed journals are rarely a good source of OM research problems, although they are excellent for learning about developments in methodology. I’ve found trade journals or books written for a business audience can sometimes describe problems which I have the modeling skills to address.
What does the OM field need to do to make a positive impact on the world?
This is rather a loaded question because one asks what “a positive impact” means. In OM there is the balance between OM that benefits society more or less directly, like humanitarian logistics, and OM that predominantly benefits a single firm. If I work for the firm then my livelihood is determined by the performance of the firm, so I have a direct stake in my OM making a positive impact. But if I am an academic who gets no direct financial reward nor participates in the profitability of the firm then it is much harder to see the link between my OM research results and a positive impact on the world. My wife and I used to often debate whether, as an academic, improving the throughput of a transfer line at Chrysler, had any sort of positive impact on the world. I know the argument that improving profitability of one firm through OM research is a good thing that benefits society. But then I have gone back to towns in the UK that fifty years ago had a viable manufacturing industry but now have none, perhaps due to all the improvements in supply chains exceeding the improvements in plant level productivity necessary to keep these factories in operation. I am not sure that this question admits a satisfactory answer.
What are some common misconceptions you observe that young researchers have? Do you feel you have made any mistakes?
Getting good papers published requires achieving a balance between choosing an interesting issue or problem and demonstrating appropriate modeling skills. Modeling skills directed at issues that seem irrelevant to the real world, even if the skills are superbly demonstrated, does not result in papers that have impact. Nowadays, choosing interesting issues but using trivial models that do not capture these issues will not result in papers that make it through the review process. Fifty years ago, such papers could get published and sometimes they enabled other researchers to see the problem and improve on the model. The challenge to the young researcher is to get the right balance between the relevance of the problem and the sophistication of the model.
I’ve made mistakes. I’ve often spent far too long on a particular problem in the hope that eventually I will see a way of solving a relevant model. Knowing when to give up is a challenge.
What has been the key to your success?
Good problems, good students, and good industry contacts combined with curiosity and persistence.
Why is OM important? What significant contributions has OM made to society and to the world?
OM has contributed primarily through the productivity and quality improvement achieved through its use. It has enabled the development of considerably more complex and sophisticated supply chains, and these have led to dramatic increases in wealth, particularly for some Asian countries. It has probably led to improved management of large firms. OM is always trying to deal with the impact of technological change. With incremental change OM can become very sophisticated, but more radical change in products and processes is often disruptive to OM practice. For academics this is good as it leads to new problems and new issues, but it is hard for practitioners as they may not be able to master the new OM skills required. Unfortunately, better OM does not always lead to the survival and growth of the firm.
Acknowledgement: These responses were written while the author was visiting the National University of Singapore. He wishes to thank PhD student Qingxia Kong for helpful comments on the responses