An introduction to operational research

felicity-mcleisterFelicity McLeister is the project manager for Pro Bono O.R., a scheme run by The Operational Research Society, a charity which provides short term support to charities to assist them in making operational improvements.

What is operational research (OR)?

Operational research is a discipline that uses scientific approaches, such as queueing theory, to improve organisations’ effectiveness. Its focus is on improving the complex systems and processes that underpin everybody’s daily lives – OR is the ‘science of better’.

What does OR look like?

Have you ever been in charge of a service to clients which involves users waiting until resources become free? Perhaps a helpline where callers must hang on until an operator is available; or a refuge or residential unit where potential residents must wait for a bed to become free; or a multi-stage process where people are cared for by different specialists as their circumstances changes.

Have you ever worried about the queue length, or about the client waiting time, or about bottlenecks in the system?

Queueing theory and OR

Queueing theory is a type of operational research which can help organisations to become more effective.

Here are some simple facts about queues:

  1. There is a whole area of science devoted to managing queues, that hasn’t just proved the above results mathematically. Over the years it has massively increased the numbers of people who pass through bottlenecks without waiting too long: bottlenecks for hospital treatment, traffic flows, supermarket cashpoints… you name it.
  2. If you have exactly the right number of services available to deal with the people needing the service – whether that is hostel beds, or telephonists, or cashiers – and if people don’t turn up perfectly regularly, or don’t take exactly the same amount of time each, then queues will inevitably build up.
  3. If you have two servers, then if you have a single queue, with the person at the front of the queue going to whichever server is free first, instead of having one queue for each, then it makes no difference to the average waiting time – but it does mean that the waiting times are more evenly shared, with fewer people having to wait much longer than others

For example

If you want to see an example of how this has helped a voluntary sector organisation, look at our Crimestoppers case study.

Managing queues is just one of the areas where operational research can help organisations improve their effectiveness.

How does it work?

By using a mix of ‘soft’ techniques to understand the social and organisational context, and mathematical modelling to analyse complex situations, OR can help you to make more effective decisions and build more productive systems based on:

  • more complete data
  • consideration of all available options
  • careful predictions of outcomes and estimates of risk
  • the latest decision tools and techniques.

How could OR be beneficial to voluntary sector organisations?

Voluntary sector organisations are no different from public or private sector organisations in facing complex decisions, they are often:

  • choosing between strategic options against a ‘perfect storm’ of a turbulent environment, uncertain times and threats to sustainability
  • pressurised to ‘do more with less’
  • needing to make good use of their data.

Even more than other sectors, voluntary sector organisations are being challenged to prove that they’re doing the good job they believe they are; and even more than other sectors, stakeholders have a deep emotional commitment that needs to be managed well when making big decisions. These are all areas where OR can help.

Further support

Pro Bono O.R.

Pro Bono O.R. is a scheme that was launched by The OR Society in 2013 that places volunteer analysts in short term projects with voluntary sector organisations across the UK to assist them in making operational improvements. Areas include: strategy, systems, processes, operations and decision-making.

More about OR

See further information about OR and the ways in which it can help.


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