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Recognizing the impact of operations research

by Polly Mitchell-Guthrie on November 11th, 2014

Today I had a dilemma due to scheduling conflicts – I could go watch my boss Radhika Kulkarni be officially welcomed as an INFORMS Fellow or watch my colleague Ivan Oliveira give his Wagner talk. I figured Radhika had already won but Ivan still needed my support, so I went with the latter.

Jim Wilson (NC State University), Radhika Kulkarni (SAS), and Vidyadhar Kulkarni (University of North Carolina)

Jim Wilson (NC State University), Radhika Kulkarni (SAS), and Vidyadhar Kulkarni (University of North Carolina)

Fortunately, colleague Brad Klenz sent a photo of he took of Radhika at the luncheon, posing with her nominator Jim Wilson and husband Vidyadhar Kulkarni. The 2014 INFORMS Fellows are an impressive bunch. Other 2014 winners include Terry Harrison, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the Analytics Certification Board, and I’ve been quite impressed with Russ Labe through various practice activities and hearing him speak multiple times. I was particularly glad to see Radhika’s hard work recognized. She is such a passionate believer in operations research that she has been an incredible advocate for it internally at my company SAS and externally to the companies we work with. Radhika has grown our investment in optimization and simulation and extended its impact to more organizations through the development of more full-featured optimization solutions that solve complex problems like marketing optimization or revenue management and price optimization. As INFORMS member and Gartner analyst Lisa Kart reported at the 2013 INFORMS Executive Forum, in one survey they did only 3% were using prescriptive analytics (a term some have adopted for optimization), vs. 70% reporting usage of descriptive analytics and 16% using predictive analytics. Clearly a lot of work needs to be done to extend the huge potential impact of operations research to more places.

Ivan Oliveira (SAS)

Ivan Oliveira (SAS)

Speaking of the impact of optimization, the session I did attend instead was a one where two of the six finalists for the Daniel H. Wagner Prize for Excellence in Operations Research Practice presented. This prize emphasizes good writing, strong analytical content, and verifiable practice. I went to hear my colleague Ivan Oliveira present, along with Kevin Norwood of Procter and Gamble, on “Statistical and Optimization Techniques for Laundry Portfolio Optimization at P&G.” They represented a broader contingent from each company who had worked together on this problem. P&G makes well-known laundry detergents like Tide, Gain, Share and more, and the impact of this project was about reducing the production costs involved in making the detergents within certain constraints. Each detergent is comprised of a number of raw ingredients that can be combined in a variety of ways, as long as the outcomes consumers desire remain consistent. When you wash your clothes, you care about what they call SRI, or stain removal index, wanting to make sure that it gets your clothes clean. And blood stains differently than grass, which is different than wine, etc., all of which produce different demands on the raw ingredients to work effectively. The many constraints led to a highly convex mixed integer linear programming problem that the team had not seen addressed in the literature. Their ultimate solution saved P&G $5-20 million (depending on the combinations), helped them balance cost with the complexity of the ingredient mix, and allowed them to evaluate more combinations due to the speed of the solution.

The other talk in this session was “Gerrymandering for Justice: Redistricting U.S. Liver Allocation,” given by Sommer Gentry from the US Naval Academy and Dorry Segev from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The focus was on reducing the geographic disparity related to liver transplants, since your likelihood of getting a liver varies hugely depending on where you live. Their model, if implemented, is projected to save lives as well as money. We can all hope that the transplant authorities responsible for approval put it into action, since it would certainly increase the public immeasurably.

It is exciting to see the impact of operations research on so many projects and lives in so many diverse ways. But behind this impact are individuals who make incredible contributions to the profession and to society through their hard work. I feel fortunate to work with so many hardworking, intelligent people at SAS and through INFORMS and to have seen their work recognized today.

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