Four lessons about resolutions for 2012 (and O.R.)

Until INFORMS suggested that we bloggers on O.R. should write about the relationship of our discipline and the making of New Year resolutions, I had not considered that the two could be interrelated.  But, reflecting on the INFORMS challenge over the holiday, I realise that there are several similarities.  (Yes, I do have a life, and I did enjoy the holiday period, and I didn't spend every waking moment thinking about O.R.)

Lesson number 1: philosophy.  New Year resolutions are based on observing the past, learning from the past, and selecting ways to improve the future for a person, family or even business.  O.R. models are based on observing the past, learning from the past, and selecting ways to improve the future for a business, family or even person.

Lesson number 2: forecasting.  The Roman deity Janus was famous for having two faces, one to look back to the "old year", one to look forward to the "new year".   (Did you know that the word "janitor" is related to Janus?  Janus is the deity in charge of gates and doors.)  When one makes resolutions, one looks back (see lesson 1) and makes a forecast for the future.  Usually, in personal circumstances, one uses what O.R. people know as "A naive forecast" that the future will be very similar to the past.  Makers of New Year resolutions do not (generally) use exponential smoothing, seasonally adjusted models, or Box-Jenkins time series models to forecast for the coming year.  But experienced O.R. professionals know that there are numerous situations where that naive forecast is as good a method as possible, even if it may get dressed up in detail to justify the consultancy fee to the client.

Lesson number 3: developing the New Year resolutions.  Lifestyle coaches recommend that any change in personal habits should have five characteristics, referred to as "SMART".  This is an acronym well-known in O.R. circles, for "Specific, Measured, Attainable, Relevant, Timed", and these five words are often used implicitly or explicitly in O.R. studies.
Specific means that the resolution specifies in detail the change that is expected: "I will lose seven pounds by June 30th", just as an O.R. study may specify that the cost of distributing widgets will be reduced by 2% during the coming financial year.  In both resolutions and O.R. studies, being specific leads to a plan of action, identifying matters that need to be changed, when and how.
Measured relates to the above, as both the examples include numerical measures.  It is not enough to resolve "I will lose weight by June 30th" or build models which aim to "reduce the cost of distributing widgets"
Attainable means that the resolution or O.R. proposal is feasible.  It may not be possible to lose seventeen pounds by June 30th (unless you are dieting under medical supervision); it may not be possible to reduce distribution costs by 10%.
Relevant means that the resolution is an important one; anyone can suggest a resolution that is trivial, and O.R. analysis of irrelevant parts of an organisation may be interesting but unproductive.  (cf "rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic")
Timed is part of being specific giving a timetable for change in personal habits or business parameters.

Lesson number 4: implementation.  It is often noted by O.R. scientists that one must identify the person or persons in an organisation who will own the solution to the O.R. problem and ensure that it is implemented.  The journal "Interfaces" used to insist on supporting letters from an individual in a client organisation assuring the readers that the proposal in a practical paper had been implemented and achieved the benefits that had been claimed.  For New Year resolutions, the person making the resolution has the responsibility of implementing the plan to achieve the desired result.  However, there is much evidence that successful New Year resolutions are associated with an outsider whose responsibility it is to monitor progress, and help keep the plan on course.  Allied with this is the common suggestion that resolutions should be written down and placed prominently as a reminder.  In other words, implement the resolution into the regular routine, just as implementation of an O.R. study should be done consistently.

And one more parallel.  For both resolutions and O.R. implementation, go forward with determination and persistence.


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