Characteristics of Operations Research

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Operations research is the intellectual force behind manufacturing, the delivery of services and the movement of people, objects and information. You can see its work in places such as a self-checkout aisle, when you check into a hotel or hospital, troop deployments, the assembly line and when you order a quick lunch. The features of operations research recognize that efficient work and movement require the ability to transform pieces of information into a plan.

1 Understanding the System

In operations research, you don’t view people, objects or functions in isolation, but as related to a common purpose. Systems analysis recognizes that what happens with one component of a body or an organization affects other parts and, thus, the whole. Just as your heart must function properly for blood to circulate through vessels, the computer terminal must work to properly run software, which in turn stores and transmits data to manage inventory. The systems approach makes you understand each stage of a distribution, manufacturing, data transfer or other process.

2 The Models

To do operations research, you need to grasp math and computers. These tools create models that describe or show a scenario, such as production output or the flow of customers at a fast-food restaurant. The core of a model is the objective function -- a goal such as reducing customer wait times or optimizing production. Variables, or inputs, feed the models. For example, the optimal output for cough medicine may depend on the amounts of various ingredients, container sizes and temperatures applied to the ingredients. A model for speedy service of customers depends on the time of day -- breakfast and lunch may be peak times for fast-food restaurants, for example -- and the number of registers and workers to run them and the kitchen.

3 The Unknown

Operations research takes you through the unknown and uncertain. Businesses and organizations plan production or other activity months or years in advance. Weather, striking laborers, rising prices and damage to plants or equipment can disrupt operations and render plans and projections untrue.Operations research analysts plan and model for best-case, likely and worst-case scenarios. For example, you may need to design and construct facilities as part of your distribution scheme to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes or other severe weather events.

4 Multiple Points of View

Operations research teams draw from many disciplines. For example, an economist working on flight schedules may study factors that affect fuel costs and the demand for particular flights. Not all decision science involves mere number-crunching. A psychologist may examine the attitudes of employees toward a change in a plant layout or manufacturing equipment. Apprehension for change might necessitate extensive orientation or training during the transition. Sociologists or political scientists might gauge community support or opposition to a particular industry or product, which may affect where a store or plant is located.

Christopher Raines enjoys sharing his knowledge of business, financial matters and the law. He earned his business administration and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a lawyer since August 1996, Raines has handled cases involving business, consumer and other areas of the law.