The struggle of a puzzle: why my job is helping people so much!


The OR Consultant

“What do you do for a living?” How often is this one of the first five questions fired at you in an introductory conversation. Some jobs are more easily explained than others. We all regularly buy bread, so the job of a baker is clear to us. We need to get our cars fixed once in a while – hopefully less regularly than buying bread – so also the job of a car mechanic is fairly clear. Now considering my own job: who can tell me what an operations research (OR) consultant does for a living?

Solving Business Puzzles

Helping others solve their complex business puzzles. That is what my answer would be. And given my current focus: helping companies in the Parcel, Express, and Postal (PEP) business solving their complex puzzles. PEP companies are facing all sorts of puzzles, from strategic to completely operational, from conceptual to highly detailed, but usually quantitative and very complex. To give an idea of these puzzles, imagine being decision-maker at an express provider. You would like to have your depot and hubs at the strategically best locations you can think of, but how can you decide where those locations should be? And how many depots and hubs should you have? Or you have already defined your network infrastructure, but how can your freight be routed efficiently, making sure that everything arrives on time? How many trucks should be used and at what times should they depart? And, when considering the hubs: can they handle all current freight based on sorting equipment and manpower, and how will that be in the future? Or more generally, you have heard how big data can improve your business, and you want an expert to support you in exploring this opportunity. In either of these situations, that’s where the OR consultant comes in. How do we tackle such puzzles?

How to solve your business puzzles in 4 easy steps

Setting the scene: Pierre consults ORTEC to support him in his decision-making process at his company Pierre’s Parcels.

Step 1: translating the business puzzle

First things first: I get around the table with Pierre and together with him I aim to translate his business puzzle into a quantitative question, and to set a clear scope. Listening to the business situation and turning them into solvable components. After the meeting, Pierre tells me that the discussion not only ensured a good start of the project, but also helped him understand his own situation better. I can imagine that the view of an ‘outsider’ can open up opportunities. Well, time for step 2: data.

Step 2: gathering the data

Data gathering always takes up a significant proportion of the project timeline. “But I have perfect data”, ensures Pierre on day 1, and he refers me to his operations guy. However, the more questions I pose, the less sure he gets. Often data quality is not as good as the customer would like it to be. Common reasons are data entry errors in the system, or the fact that the business is regulated so operationally that tactical and strategic data are harder to track down. I love to help customers with their data, increasing their data quality and giving insight on what the data actually says. Working together, Pierre and I are able to get the right data and in the correct formats for the model. A few weeks have past.

Step 3: tuning the model

In the scope discussion Pierre and I concluded the ORTEC tool we’re going to use. Now it is time to make sure the model is going to represent the situation in practice best as possible. We are depending on each other. Pierre is the business expert and able to tell me all about the business. I am the modelling expert and responsible to tune the model in such a way that it behaves correctly in each situation. It is a period of intensive interaction, and I find in Pierre a great project partner. It results in a satisfactory baseline from where we will start the optimization.

Step 4: improving the business

For both of us, step 4 is probably the most exciting one: improving Pierre’s business and getting the savings! Based on his thorough business knowledge, Pierre has already thought of possible opportunities: those are going on our scenario list. We go through the list and determine what extra information we need for running the scenarios. Simultaneously, I set up a greenfield run, to see if any other scenario opportunities emerge from the tool itself. Pierre is amazed to see how many different factors and tradeoffs the ORTEC tool considers, coming up with opportunities he wasn’t able to spot or quantify in all those years: the advantage of mathematical modelling! After completing the scenario list, we go through the list together and discuss the results, including effort of implementation. I see Pierre’s enthusiasm rising while he is adding up the savings. Another happy customer!

The project concludes with a closure meeting where we visualize the final results and evaluate the project. Being a reflective person, I get a lot from the feedback session, and I thank him. He does the same. With his new insights, Pierre sees opportunities in a new puzzle. “See you next month”, he tells me.

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Thom Brouwers

Operations Research Consultant at ORTEC

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