Operations Management

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Seth Stevenson of Slate is writing a series of articles on operations management, which includes the article on Southwest Airlines I blogged recently. What is operations management?

[O]perations is the science of making things run better. Once you start thinking like an operations geek, it can transform the way you think about everything, from your workplace to your commute to the way you make a PB&J.

One important and enduring corner of the operations world--the one we'll be exploring today--is queuing theory. Queuing theory is the study of lines. All kinds of lines. The lines at supermarket checkouts, the lines at toll booths, the lines of people on hold waiting for someone, anyone, to pick up at the cable company's 1-800 number.
Operations management is not all about lines (or simply shortening or eliminating them), but they keep coming up, as the first article linked above indicates. It's also much more interesting than it might sound at first, and can come in quite handy in many unexpected places in everyday life. Stevenson's latest article, for example, is about applying ideas from operations management to grocery shopping, and includes reader-submitted tips. The teaser warns: "The deli counter is your enemy." I was pleased to see that I'd figured that one out, as well as a some techniques of my own, such as always including which section of the store has each item on my list. This allows me to completely avoid backtracking for items I may have added to the list late. (I've since made my lists always accessible via my smartphone, where I can now filter by section and shop from several very small lists.) My favorite hint from the article, which I don't need now, but might eventually come in handy is as follows:
I bring a large, wheeled plastic storage box from home and place it in the shopping cart when I get to the grocery store. I ask the checkout clerk to put the groceries in the box instead of in bags. Then I can wheel the box to the car, lift the groceries all at once to put them in the trunk, and make one trip wheeling the box into the house--instead of four or five trips back and forth from the car to the kitchen...
I have always been interested in making time-consuming chores take as little of my time as possible, but had not been aware that there was a general concept for this type of analysis. I had merely been applying common sense, inspired a little by the concept from chemistry of the rate-limiting step of a chemical reaction. And, yes, I am so much in the habit of asking, "What is the rate-limiting step?" that I once realized, at a family gathering, that I could make a bunch of sandwiches more efficiently, by toasting the top slices of bread while assembling several sandwiches at once. Now that I know about this field of study, I can look for examples of its application and learn other, related principles.

I also appreciate one reader's admonition against losing sight of why one strives for effciency:
In its essence, it is the art doing more of what you want and less of what you don't. So it's important to ask, "How does this streamlining help the bigger process?" It's great that you can peel bananas faster, but what did you get with that extra time? Were you able to make banana splits? Or did you just end up with more peeled bananas than you really need?
Man does not live to be efficient: He is efficient to live.

-- CAV

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