Thought Leadership Article

The Moneyball Problem

OPSI Systems recently hosted the annual Operations Research Society of South Africa’s (ORSSA) conference, and it served as an illuminating example of the intersection of experience, education and technology.

One of the notable speakers was Michael Trick. Fellow of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), author of 40 professional publications but most famous amongst laymen (with the assistance of his colleagues) for toppling the husbandand- wife team responsible for scheduling all of America’s Major League Baseball (MLB) games for over 20 years.

It’s one of the most fascinating human interest stories to come out of operations research. When the number of teams and games became too much for MLB’s then Harry Simmons to schedule alone – who had similarly been producing the schedules for 20 years – it was Henry and Holly Stephenson who stepped up to the plate in 1982. While they originally got the job based on their computer bona fides, their ultimate system turned out to be largely manually created with a bit of assistance from their own computer program. The Stephenson’s managed to fend off multiple competitors throughout their career – and most notably Trick for almost a decade – producing a workable schedule for 30 teams playing just over 2 100 games across 180 days year on year.

This included a host of specialised requirements regarding travel, rest days, special requests from all the teams and more beside. That the Stephensons generated a workable schedule from all this, largely by hand, is commendable. But it makes one wonder about the millions of solutions that may have been left out, which is exactly where operations research, with the benefit of computer-assisted optimisation, thrives.

On Trick’s own blogpost, he wrote about a short documentary video entitled The Schedule Makers, which details the contributions made by the Stephensons and their inevitable loss of the job in 2004. He states that one of the reasons it took so long to top the Stephensons was the computers and the algorithms they used to produce schedules weren’t yet fast enough or advanced enough to produce them timeously.

One of the highlights from The Schedule Makers was about the 2013 schedule, in which Mariano Rivera, considered one of the finest players in recent memory, finishing his career in Minute Maid Ballpark – a notable but not exactly high-profile location for American baseball.

The documentary implies that the human element, the ‘story’, is lost with the adoption of a combinatorial optimisation system, a point Trick argues is paramount to predicting the future, given that teams have to submit their requirements almost two years in advance.

Where am I going with all this? More than anything, I believe the story is illustrative of the constant tension between experience, qualifications and technology, and the balancing act that’s required in all three areas to remain relevant.

The Stephensons had the experience and a knack for sport scheduling but failed to capitalise on their experience once Trick entered the picture. While I’m not sure about the Stephensons’ qualifications, it’s clear that neither lacked insight or intelligence. A lack of flexibility was their downfall: Holly states, “I did kind of resent the computers coming in, because they’re not artwork. Whatever they are; I have no idea how you would use advanced combinatorial optimisation software to create a schedule.” That lack of understanding is tragic.

Similarly, Trick – despite his doctorate in industrial engineering and subsequent post-doctoral fellowships – was unable to leverage his knowledge or use of computers to give him the edge until 2005. And even today, such as the schedule produced in 2013, it can’t always cater for the human element, the ‘fair’ schedule that’s anything but, which ‘experience’ would step in to correct.

In his same blogpost, he concludes “Another way to see this is that in 1994, despite my doctorate and my experience and my techniques, I was one millionth of the scheduler that the Stephensons were. Henry and Holly Stephenson are truly scheduling savants, able to see patterns that no other human can see. But eventually technological advances overtook them.”


To add comment, email rick.de.klerk@opsi.co.za

 

Pic credit: Frederick Dennstedt

 

Written by: Rick de Klerk
Date: 15 October 2015
  • Warehousing in South Africa today – and the near future Worldwide, in the warehousing business, when future operations are discussed, the conversation is likely to be about more automation, greater variety, better systems, more integration, more efficiency and greater flexibility. The dreams, discussions and plans focus on issues such as robotics, the ‘Internet of Things’, tomorrow’s deliveries by drones, 3D printing, multi-channel fulfilment, ecommerce growth, rapid fulfilment and the need to individualise operations.
  • Warehousing 2018: from cost centre to growth centre Warehousing operations and IT professionals need to respond positively to the significant changes and challenges that will be influencing the industry over the next five years – or face disaster.
  • Raising productivity and morale in the warehouse It’s a well-known fact that happy and motivated workers produce better results. A recent study found that happier workers were 12% more productive than their counterparts. It underlines staff morale and wellbeing is not just an HR goal: it’s fundamental to business performance levels.
  • Supply chain orchestration – people are needed to play the music It’s easy to think supply chains consist of co-ordinated processes, enabled by cool IT, through which needed products flow smoothly with occasional storage to the end consumer. Great in theory but it takes the right people doing the right things at the right time to make end customers happy.
  • Africa: the giant IS awakening – seriously September saw the respective international conferences of two major supply chain management industry bodies – that of the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA, in Taipei) and that of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT, in Dubai). At both gatherings there was substantial African representation and, at the CILT Convention, Africans were in a clear majority. What does this imply for African businesses?
  • The Moneyball Problem OPSI Systems recently hosted the annual Operations Research Society of South Africa’s (ORSSA) conference, and it served as an illuminating example of the intersection of experience, education and technology.
  • Warehousing in South Africa today – and the near future Worldwide, in the warehousing business, when future operations are discussed, the conversation is likely to be about more automation, greater variety, better systems, more integration, more efficiency and greater flexibility. The dreams, discussions and plans focus on issues such as robotics, the ‘Internet of Things’, tomorrow’s deliveries by drones, 3D printing, multi-channel fulfilment, ecommerce growth, rapid fulfilment and the need to individualise operations.
  • Warehousing 2018: from cost centre to growth centre Warehousing operations and IT professionals need to respond positively to the significant changes and challenges that will be influencing the industry over the next five years – or face disaster.
  • Social supply chains: trend or threat? Buzzwords like social sharing, interconnectedness, engagement, immediacy and transparency have left the confines of social media discussions dominated by marketers and have started scaring professionals across all levels and functions of organisations.
  • Raising productivity and morale in the warehouse It’s a well-known fact that happy and motivated workers produce better results. A recent study found that happier workers were 12% more productive than their counterparts. It underlines staff morale and wellbeing is not just an HR goal: it’s fundamental to business performance levels.
  • Bridging the divide between fleet managers and drivers The relationship between drivers and fleet managers can often be challenging due to high productivity pressures and a lack of understanding regarding each side’s difficulties.
  • CHEP ‘Blue Motion’: gaining instant control of the SC CHEP South Africa’s newly launched ‘Blue Motion’ mobile application will allow wholesalers and retailers greater control over their supply chains. Named for the company’s distinctive blue pallet range, the application provides its customers with a mobile asset management system utilising real-time data, which can be formatted to suit customers’ specific needs.
  • Horses for courses – hub and spoke in rural Africa Moving goods from source to destination through Africa is a multidimensional challenge and one where first-world thinking still trumps appropriate. A change in game needs to happen.
  • Human error and accidents and the role of self-regulation Companies using third party contractors to move their goods are confronted with the challenges of poor economic growth, ever increasing transport costs and high rate of accidents. In an environment with one of the worst accident rates in the world, where accidents cost the economy an estimated R300-billion annually, something different needs to be done, but what?
  • The Analyst Age Data this, data that – data is certainly getting its due, but where do you fit in?
  • Supply chain orchestration – people are needed to play the music It’s easy to think supply chains consist of co-ordinated processes, enabled by cool IT, through which needed products flow smoothly with occasional storage to the end consumer. Great in theory but it takes the right people doing the right things at the right time to make end customers happy.
  • Truck drivers: obsolescence or opportunity? As new technologies shift the dynamics of employment in the supply chain, transport managers will have to gauge where the real benefits lie, and nowhere is this more apparent than future self-driving vehicles.
  • An Imperial solution in Malawi An effective supply chain model established by Imperial Health Sciences to deliver essential medicines to the people of Malawi has successfully achieved this goal, and, in addition, has resulted in the growth and development of a local logistics service provider.
  • Africa: the giant IS awakening – seriously September saw the respective international conferences of two major supply chain management industry bodies – that of the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA, in Taipei) and that of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT, in Dubai). At both gatherings there was substantial African representation and, at the CILT Convention, Africans were in a clear majority. What does this imply for African businesses?
  • Powering up your distribution As South Africans struggle with load shedding and Eskom angles for a hefty rate increase, we’ve been learning – with something bordering gleeful resentment – about the intricate details of national power supply.
  • Out … but not forgotten Outsourcing logistics and supply chain functions is commonplace today by manufacturers and shippers – but do customers get the deal they expect or deserve? It depends.
  • Managing change for long-term success The second episode of a three-part serialisation of the supplychainforesight 2015 research report highlights that with new technologies being introduced, and companies competing in an increasingly cutthroat and competitive ecosystem, the ability to make key shifts and transform from within is becoming essential for survival – and for long-term business success.
  • Exciting times – harvesting our youth dividend Legislation and other Government interventions may assist in transforming our society into one in which the limitations on each individual’s success are only self-imposed. A more important element to a nation’s success, however, is that those who have gained experience and expertise take proactive steps in using those assets to invest in society’s future – our young people. We examine the opportunities this represents.
  • The Moneyball Problem OPSI Systems recently hosted the annual Operations Research Society of South Africa’s (ORSSA) conference, and it served as an illuminating example of the intersection of experience, education and technology.