Showing posts with label Use of Operations Research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Use of Operations Research. Show all posts

Sunday, July 31, 2011

An Alternative Way to Fly (as long as expectations are managed)

The purpose of this post is to share the discovery of an alternative way of operating an airline (flight schedule and route wise).

No matter how airlines degrade their service standards these days in the West, I think it's fair to say that most of us still believe that most airlines *intend* to:
  • Take off on-time
  • Land on-time
  • Fly us from A to B as the ticket says, without surprise stops
  • (Oh, and have toilets, of course)

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, we have been shown a rather different way of operating an airline. It contradicts with all of the above, but it works. We took 4 internal flights.

Here is how we experienced them first hand:
  • 1 left on time as per the ticket, and even got us there early (bonus!), because...
  • None of the 4 flights flew the original path it said it would: stopovers were skipped to go direct instead, or the direct flights got stopovers added onto it last minute
  • None of them arrived late, because...
  • Some of them took off earlier than stated
  • Additionally, the air stewardesses were lovely, and they gave passengers snacks and drinks (*gasp* what novelty!)
  • To their credit, they did try to inform passengers of the changes a couple of days ahead of the flight (in our case by email, which we only read after we got back to London).
  • They also tell passengers to double check the flight times a couple of days before, to be aware of any late changes.
(For your curiosity: the international flights from London to Addis Ababa was quite standard. The only oddity was that they weighed everyone's carry-on luggage at the gate, because it's apparently a popular flight to take lots of stuff with you!)

IMHO, an airline would play this game, because: (we suspect - unconfirmed)
  • It wants to minimise costs - mainly fuel in this case.
  • It has 1-2 planes that fly in circles to cover off a handful of popular destinations.
  • As the airline gets more and more requests for seats through the form of purchased tickets, it is faced with an optimisation problem to fly all its customers to their expressed destinations with minimum cost. The best way to do this is probably through re-shuffling the schedule. For instance, if a plane is hopping from A to B to C in sequence, where B is closer to A than C is, and if we discover 2 days before the flight that the plane is filled with 2/3 passengers going to C, and 1/3 going to B, then flying A->C->B is cheaper than A->B->C. What if there are customers wishing to go from B to C? We hear that the airline is known for cancelling flights as well. Luckily, we didn't experience this.
This way of operating an airline is possible, because:
  • It is a monopoly.
  • The number of flights are few, so it's easy to manage change.
  • Customers expect it and adjust flying behaviour accordingly (i.e. always check the flight times before the day of flight, and always leave wiggle room before and after the flight).
  • For foreigners who are used to the typical western airline service (i.e. expect it to take-off and land on-time and fly the route it says it would), the price justifies it and shuts people up from complaining, and instead people will have a laugh (or write a blog post!) about it.
  • It doesn't call itself "Precision Airline" (the Tanzanian airline), and can afford to deviate a little. 8-)
P.S. If you are planning to visit Ethiopia, and intend to fly within the country, you may want to consider buying the tickets within the country rather than online. It is significantly cheaper due to price control. This is true as of spring 2011, so double check this before you travel.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Excellent Data Visualisation - Mortality Statistics Meets Modern Video Technology

Exciting statistics on visual display on BBC4. It indeed is an exciting, visually pleasing and modern video. The presenter, Hans Rosling, a statistician and a guru of data animation, makes numbers look matrix-cool! I thought I was watching a 4-minute magic show. Savour in the power of great data visualisation. Watch the life expectancy and wealth progression of 200 countries in 200 years in 4 minutes.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Doing good with good OR" - it's not just academic

ThinkOR reader, Tina asks:
I recently graduated from college and am considering going to graduate school to study Operations Research because it is a subject I really like. There's something strangely satisfying about improving the real world with mathematical models. However, I am conflicted about what kind of career path a masters in OR would put me on. In an admittedly naive way, I want to use my education to improve our society. I think that OR can be better applied to many social services to improve efficiency. However, are there currently opportunities like this available? It seems like most of the job market (at least in the US) is for market analysis...something I don't know I'd want to devote my life to, not that there's anything wrong with that.

There is an issue of Interfaces coming out about the sort of thing I'd be interested in doing--"Doing good with good OR", but the contributors so far are all academic. Is this the main option for this kind of research? I would hate to spend two more years getting a masters degree, only to find out that the kind of job I'm looking for doesn't really exist.

ThinkOR's reply to Tina's concerns on non-academic careers in Operations Research that would do good in our society (outside of finance):

True that OR can be applied to many social (or non-social) services to improve efficiency, because as long as there is a process in place, OR can be applied to it. The question is to what degree it would help - is the ROI worthwhile? You are right that some of the "Doing Good with Good OR" seems research oriented. However, I would disagree that market analysis is the only 'career' for OR graduates out there. In fact, health care is the biggest employer for my graduating class in Vancouver, Canada. It is my understanding that health care is employing OR folks more and more in North America, so there you go, a very valid social/public service that is using OR to improve our society.

Also, in this website, they have listed quite a few other real world examples of using OR to do good, some of them are certainly for the good of our society:
  • evacuation planning
  • cancer therapy
  • acquisition prioritization
  • dispatching service vehicles
  • delay management in public transportation
  • design of a house for disabled persons
  • hub location in cargo applications
  • production resetting optimization
  • optimization of the collection and disposal of recyclable waste
See this website "24 Hours Operations Research - operations research clock" for more details on the above projects.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Yield Management in Hostels?

In my recent travels in Europe I have again had significant exposure to the Hosteling Industry. As readers of this blog will know, we can't help but seeing Operations Research or opportunities in our daily lives. Sure enough we find ourselves analyzing our surroundings and considering the pricing structures of our hostels. In this article I hope to begin an exploration of pricing strategies in the hostel industry that I will continue after I have collected some of your thoughts and more of my own.

The Hostel industry has been rapidly developing throughout the world. According to Wikipedia, youth hostels had their humble origins in German Jugendherberge (1912), non-profit hostels for youths by youths. Fast forward to today and you can witness the evolution to profit-maximizing corporate hostels sometimes exceeding 500 beds.

That said, sophistication in the industry seems to be developing more slowly. In particular, possibly due to it's origins, there is significant resistance to profit-maximizing activity like yield management. I also believe that there is a growing suite of hostel management IT systems with some direct interfacing with booking websites. I can't claim to be an inside expert in the industry, though we did have a nice informal chat with the manager of a small-to-medium-sized non-profit hostel over beers in Munich.

Youth hostels face a problem that is similar in some ways, but different in others to that faced by traditional hotels. Apart from the obvious similarity of product, the primary similarity is that both face an expiring good that is booked ahead of time and cannot be stored.

Hostels, however, do not have business customers. Traditional revenue optimization approaches for hotels centre around price discrimination. With leisure customers and business customers that can be separated by booking time, hotels can sell rooms early at a discount to money-saving leisure customers and sell the remainder later to late-booking, price-insensitive business customers. Hotels can sell some rooms to leisure customers who would otherwise have gone to the competition had they been charged full price, and hotels can then later sell the remaining rooms at a higher price to business customers who would otherwise have only paid the flat rate that leisure customers pay. Hostels on the other hand face an exclusive stream of budget-sensitive travellers. The differentiation achieved by time of booking is thus only a question of how far the customer plans ahead and may say little about their willingness to pay.

Hostels have a wider range of product. I'm not an expert in the hospitality industry, so maybe I can ask our readers to confirm this, but I believe your typical hotel offers simply twin, triple, double, queen, and king rooms. The Meininger City Hostel and Hotel in Munich, Germany for example offers 9 distinct products on Single Private Ensuite, Twin Private Ensuite, 3 Bed Private Ensuite, 4 Bed Private Ensuite, 5 Bed Private Ensuite, 6 Bed Private Ensuite, 6 Bed Mixed Dorm Ensuite, 6 Bed Female Dorm Ensuite, 14 Bed Mixed Dorm Ensuite. Something that bears noting is that for the most part these products can be ranked such that any customer will unconditionally prefer one over those below it. For the most part, no customer would prefer to sleep in a 14 Bed Mixed Dorm when they could be in a 6 Bed.

Other factors relevant to the question of YM in hostels: I estimate that the majority of hostel stays are booked through internet booking websites, with the majority of those coming from The majority of these bookings are thus made after some moderate price comparison making the market fairly competitive. Many of these bookings will also be made factoring in reviews of the hostel. Sometimes hundreds of website users will have given the hostel a rating for things like security and cleanliness.

The lack of business customers does not mean that hostel customers cannot be segmented. I propose that hostels face two main types of customers. One group comprises the shoestring customers, willing to do anything to save a dollar (or a euro or a pound, etc.). The other group is more differentiating, willing to pay slightly more for a smaller dorm. I'm still working out the significance of this for myself.

I believe there is an opportunity there. Some initial research based on my own experience and some creative use of hostelworld shows that hostels often fill from the bottom up. That is that the largest dorms with the cheapest beds are the first to fill up, and the smaller rooms frequently go empty during the week. This may be a sign that the supply of hostel beds does not match demand. This may show that there are more small dorms in the market than desired and fewer large dorms.

I welcome any comments on the topic. Is there a business opportunity here, or is it just academic? Is the current state of IT and sophistication in hosteling sufficient to work on elementary yield management? Most hostels have a Friday-Saturday price, and everyone in Munich has a low season, high season, and Oktoberfest price, but could we go further?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Computer Age Workers Suffer Digital Fatigue - Can OR Help?

The October/November Issue of Scientific American Mind magazine highlights the increasing digital fatigue we are facing as a result of always being plugged into technology.

According to a study conducted by the article's authors, our neural circuitry is actually rewired as we become more computer savvy. Internet-naive subjects, after only five consecutive days of internet use (one hour/day), had already (unconsciously, of course) rewired their brains to match those of the computer-savvy subjects in the study.

While the prospect of adapting our brains to optimize our use of the internet may sound exciting, the authors warn that the computer age has plunged us into a state of "continuous partial attention" - which they describe as keeping tabs on everything, while never truly focusing on anything.

This can result, according to the authors, in a state of "techno-brain burnout", where people place their brain in a heightened state of stress by paying continuous partial attention to anything and everything. Because our brains were not built to sustain this level of monitoring for such extended periods of time, this "techno-brain burnout" is threatening to become an epidemic.

While these heightened stress levels can have short-term productivity benefits, they are proving to be significant hindrances to medium-long term productivity, due to worker fatigue and inability to concentrate.

So where does OR come in? Well, let's review the characteristics of this vexing problem to the computer age, with workers who:
  • Have too much to do, too little time
  • Are overwhelmed by incoming stimuli
  • Fatigued and drained
Perhaps an old school approach - from the early days of scientific management - could be the right prescription.

Our old friend Frank Gilbreth, father of motion study, on his second day on the job as a bricklayer, questioned why he was being taught several different methods for laying bricks. So Frank developed motion and fatigue study, and created a process for laying bricks that was vastly more efficient than the processes currently in place.

In fact, Frank's new method increased productivity by nearly 200%, while simultaneously reducing worker fatigue. Here's a nice two-minute overview of Frank's bricklaying study from YouTube - a nice refresher course if it's been awhile:

It seems that computer age workers could greatly benefit from motion study analysis - and who better to deliver it than OR practitioners?

If you walked into a factory, and saw everyone on the assembly line improvising and doing their job any way they pleased, without any knowledge of best practices or recommended techniques, wouldn't you be stunned? Yet to this point in time, this is how the computer age workforce operates.

Time management and productivity experts have been at the forefront of efforts to tackle these problems, but their recommendations are usually fairly general, and without quantification. While advice such as "don't check email first thing in the morning" may indeed be worth practicing, eventually, we should be able to help guide specific individuals and workers to their optimal level of productivity.

And if that isn't ripe for OR, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Decision Making Model on Stroke Prevention: Warfarin or not

An interesting talk I attended at the CORS 2008 conference in Quebec City was by Beste Kucukyazici from the Faculty of Management of McGill University. The topic of the talk was “Designing Antithrombotic Therapy for Stroke Prevention in Atrial Fibrillation”.

Beste Kucukyazici showed the study of stroke patient data to see if a decision model could be derived to systematically decide on the commencing of warfarin treatment for stroke patient and its intensity. Now my question is: will OR decision models take a bigger and bigger foothold in the future of medical arena as we start to gather more useful patient data in well-planned studies? Medical doctors tend to argue that each patient has a different case, and need to be examined on an individual basis. However, if a model such as Kucukyazici’s can prove the accuracy of its decision given real patient data, then it would probably start to weaken the doctor’s argument and favour a more systematic approach. At least, such models might help reduce the complexity of doctor’s decision making process, or even reduce chances for human errors in diagnosis.

Atrial fibrillation, which is a common arrhythmia particularly common among the elderly, is one of the major independent risk factors of stroke. Several randomized control trials have shown that long-term antithrombotic therapy with warfarin significantly reduces the risk of stroke, however, it also increases the risk of suffering a major bleed. Given the potential benefits and risks of warfarin treatment, the decisions that need to be made by the clinicians are two-fold: (i) whether to start the therapy, and (ii) the intensity of warfarin use. The objective of this study is to develop an analytical framework for designing the optimal antithrombotic therapy with a patient-centered approach. The approach seeks to create a rational framework for evaluating these complex medical decisions by incorporation of complex probabilistic data into informed decision making, the identification of factors influencing such decisions and permitting explicit quantitative comparison of the benefits and risks of different therapies.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Who is using OR methods and How

You often hear people in the OR field say that operations research is very broad, it can be applied to everything and every industry. However, keep in mind that it is often only in big corporations and organizations that one would expect to see OR specialists/analysts/consultants/etc.

So what fields/industries/corporations/companies/organizations/institutions do you know of that observe and practice OR?

To name a few...
  • Healthcare: in Vancouver, BC, we have the Fraser Health Authority and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority; in Victoria, BC, there is the Vancouver Island Health Authority. They use OR to aid decision making in personnel scheduling, facility planning, resource management in general, and process design
  • Manufacturing: auto, aviation...
  • IT
  • Telecommunications
  • Agriculture
  • Finance: OR used for forecasting, portfolio management, personal consumption management
  • Service & Retail: restaurants, franchise, retail stores, etc. use OR for pricing, inventory management, process design
  • Military: of course this is the birthplace of OR
  • Mining
  • Shipping & Transportation
  • Waste Management: routing systems
What else can you think of? How do you use OR?