Identifying the decision maker

In my early days as an academic, long before email, we communicated between universities by post, or "snail mail".  One of my students chose to investigate how large the inter-university mail flow was.  She asked the question: is there enough mail to justify packing a bundle of all the day's mail from Exeter to, let us say, University B?  All the outgoing mail from Exeter went through a postroom, and University B's postroom could receive a large envelope of post and distribute its contents. Paying for one large envelope through the post would be cheaper than sending two or more separate ones. 

So the project meant collecting data (and how to do that) and discussing the strategy with the university administrator who oversaw the postroom.  The student also sat with the postroom staff as the mail from Exeter's buildings and departments arrived, was franked and then sent out in the post office van each afternoon.

The administrator's attitude was that there was no need to investigate; there was not enough inter-university mail to make it worthwhile to bundle up outgoing mail.  He was the manager, and assured us that he knew all about his department.  On the other hand, the man in the postroom was interested in what we were doing.  And, he told us, he already sometimes did bundle up outgoing mail in the way that we were suggesting.  But he didn't do it systematically, and his manager didn't show much interest in the details of the working of the postroom.

The project showed that there wasn't enough inter-university on normal days to make it worth sorting the outgoing mail regularly, but it was worth encouraging the postroom to use their common sense and to approve the ad hoc way taht they were already acting.  It wouldn't save much money, but the psychological effect would be considerable - the postroom staff wouldn't see the wasted money of six letters being sent individually to University B one day.

It reinforced one of the first lessons in the practice of OR that I learnt, and often relearnt.  Identify the decision maker, who may not be the obvious person.  Here the manager was not the real decision maker; staff in the postroom were the people who took decisions.

Another variant of this lesson is the so-called "Beer-truck accident" story.  This consists of the question: "What would happen to your production line if your scheduler was killed by a runaway beer-truck?"  Thinking of the answer to that question affects how you see how important that person would be, for decision making, for their knowledge of the system, for their salary.

I was thinking of this lesson because the latest issue of ORMS Today from INFORMS includes a reminder of the work of Gene Woolsey, who put his students onto production lines to learn what would and would not work if an OR study suggested changes.  They would work alongside those, like the postroom staff, who aimplemented management policy.

And I was thinking of it, because one of the papers that I heard at OR55 seemed to have ignored the lesson.  The speaker said that the changes proposed by the OR study had been well received by managers, but with scepticisim by those whose work pattern would be affected.  It could have been because those people were scared of change, or - rather more likely - because they knew that the study hadn't taken all relevant factors into consideration, so had aspects which would not work.

So - identify who really takes decisions, and work with them.  Identify the value of each member of the team, and honour their skills and knowledge


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