Operational research as the way for simplicity

Travelling Salesman Problem in Germany. Photo Credit: CIA
Travelling Salesman Problem in Germany solved by the CIA. Photo Credit: Public Domain

We are attending a new time where complexity is becoming the new evil in our societies. But what is complexity? Most of our politicians, and even our technicians, are using this word with no precision. The common use of the word complex is as a synonym of the word difficult. Something complex is something hard to accomplish or to be analyzed. Although this meaning is enough in order to be used by journalists, this is not useful from a scientific viewpoint. From a scientific viewpoint is better to link this word to other ones as manageability or controllability. The common meaning of the word is preserved but it is more useful for the analysis of systems in a scientific way. Something complex should not be something hard, it should be something hard to manage or to control.

As people usually like to avoid hard work, complexity should be a stone put in the way of the manager, and when we are talking about a whole society, it should be a stone put in the way of the politician. Management is required because of complexity. There is not a need of managers or politicians in a simple world. We do not need people deciding what we must do, if the solution of the problem can be found in a direct way.

Engineers are people that have accomplished the fight against complexity with scientific methods. The education of an engineer is mainly driven to the analysis of complex problems and the formulation of a simpler one that provides a single solution. This can be done through the knowledge of the natural laws and the domination of mathematics. Problems with a single solution are complicated but not complex. Mathematically, the way to turn a problem with multiple solutions into a problem with a single one is to increase the number of equations, adding new restrictions to the problem. For instance, we can search for the minimal solution among all the possible ones, or in terms of cost, we can search for the most efficient solution. We create a harder problem to get a simple solution. This is the reason why it is not exact to make a comparison between something hard and something complex.

Engineering entered management with the operational research. Operational research is a field that let to find optimal solutions to accomplish a set of planned task in terms of minimizing some function of cost through mathematical techniques. An example can be linear programming.

Projects can be done with different task, different resources, and sometimes even different objectives. Management tries to improve the effectiveness (the ability to reach the aims) and the efficiency (the ability to reduce the cost) in the execution of any project. If engineering can formulate a problem that let to find an optimal solution, the complex problem would have been turned into a simple one.

In our current time, projects with industrial application are extremely complex, the number of variables and the uncertainty linked to them are huge. Finding a mathematical formulation with classical techniques of operational research that can provide a single solution is not possible. Different techniques have been developed as simulation of systems and the test of different decisions to analyze its capability to improve the performance of the system. The simulation of systems is very dependent of the chosen model. Only if the model fits well the system under the real working conditions our results can be good.

Management could be an art some years before; because good managing decisions could be learned from another good manager in the same way as the apprentice could learn from a sculptor master. However, nowadays when businesses are making themselves more complex there is not experience about many required decisions, and to introduce scientific techniques in the managing process in order to simplify them can be very useful, because simpler procedures and solutions are not better if they are erroneous solutions.

Most businesses are not running with an operational research department. Important decisions are made many times through a hunch instead of a reasoned analysis.

My personal visualization of intuition is as the direct response of our neural network to the external stimuli that is produced by our previous experience and the genetic configuration of our brain. Intuition can be good only if our previous experience fits well the current reality. This fact is less probable when we need to make a decision about an unknown and unexpected event. In that kind of situations science can be better than experience probably, but science must use proper techniques to simplify the decision making process. When the uncertainty increases, classical techniques of operational research and modelling of systems can fail too, and it is necessary to use other new ones that consider complexity, manageability and controllability as important factors for the analysis.


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