Walking and working the line, and riding the buses

The late Alec Glaskin was head of O.R. at Pedigree Petfoods in the 1960s and 70s, and was reputed to earn the highest salary of anyone in the U.K. working in commercial O.R..  He insisted that all recruits to his team should spend time "walking and working the line".  In other words, they must have first hand experience of the production process which they were to model.  Many other senior figures in O.R. have taught the same principle.  In the U.S., Gene Woolsey was a leading exponent of the necessity of knowing how people really did things.  Experience of the world being modelled is essential for the modeller.  More recently I came across a study of the expansion of a supermarket chain into convenience stores; the young O.R. worker assigned to studying the distribution spent several months travelling in supermarket lorries to observe the process.  As a result of her observations and some astute modelling, the company changed its procedures, because it was clear that distribution models for out-of-town supermarkets did not apply to the smaller shops - obvious, but her work specified how they did not apply.

This week the Labour peer, Lord Adonis, who is standing as a candidate for the post of Mayor of London in a couple of years time, is spending five days travelling London's public transport.  He is riding the buses - walking the line, so to speak.  He has written about his observations, things that he has seen which he might have learnt from other people, such as his political advisors, but which come much better by first-hand experience.  That's the parallel with O.R. experience at the sharp end - sorry, that expression is a cliché, but it is a cliché that works to describe what he is doing.  He notes the impact of good transport on the economic well-being of an area.  And he decries the imposition of a charge by the bus company (Transport for London) for bringing bus routes into an area of new housing, a charge which will add nearly £3000 to the cost of each new house there, if the houses are built.  I hope that it wasn't an O.R. person who suggested that charge!

There aren't many similarities between politicians and O.R. scientists, but here is one - the importance of experience of the real world, not the synthetic one of models and paperwork.


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