Murphy's Law: December 22, 2003

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While MBAs (Master of Business Administration) have a bad reputation in general ("damn downsizing, heartless bean counters") and a particularly negative rep in the military (because of the often disastrous actions of the "McNamara Wiz Kids" at the Department of Defense in the 1960s), the military has finally learned to live with this kind of logical and calculating problem solving. For example, when the navy looked at the overall cost of operating an aircraft carrier they found that the biggest expense was people. Actually, this was a major problem on all navy ships. The findings were all the more stark with the realization that merchant ships confronted, and solved, this problem decades ago. Thus most merchant ships, regardless of size, rarely have a crew of more than fifty sailors. This includes huge cruise ships, carrying thousands of passengers. While the "hotel" crew (who look after the passengers) may number over a thousand, the sailors who actually run the ship (keep the engine going and steer the vessel to where it's supposed to go), number less than a hundred. And this includes additional sailors to look after the safety needs of the several thousand passengers and hotel staff on board. So the navy is introducing a lot more automation and low maintenance materials on new ships. The next generation of nuclear aircraft carriers have half as many sailors looking after the reactors. Other departments in the carrier were scrutinized as well, and hundreds of jobs were eliminated in places like the galley, maintenance and even flight operations. If the crew of a large carrier could be cut back from 6,000 to 3,000 or less the ship could carry more fuel and weapons for the aircraft, and be a much more effective warship. The same can be said for all combat ships. 

But the MBAs have applied their analytical skills to other naval matters as well, including logistics and base security. In this area they came up with some shocking vulnerabilities that had not been noticed before. These are being kept secret, lest potential terrorists learn of the weak links and exploit them. In this respect, the military MBAs are applying their skills the same way their predecessors did during World War II. Back then, the process  was called Operations Research (and still is). But that term always proved unpopular. It was kind of scary, and the mathematical methods applied (often just basic statistics) was arcane enough to most people to appear as some kind of magic. So when the war ended and Operations Research (also known as "OR") went off to civilian life, it became "Management Science" in business schools and MBAs were steeped in it. Yet OR can still frighten people and cause panic. When MBA and OR types proposed the "Total Information Awareness" program to fight terrorism, the media and politicians jumped all over it as an attempt to inflict "Big Brother" on the American people. Yet just such a program had been used to root out domestic terrorism in Germany during the 1980s, and those same techniques have been used by American marketing firms for decades. 

But at least the military has gotten over the fear of OR. In fact, more and more officers are being trained in OR techniques, so you don't have to bring in civilian consultants to figure out more efficient ways to get things done. OR techniques were used to chase down Saddam Hussein, and help protect American troops in Iraq. It may seem like magic to some, but if it keeps you safe, who cares?

 


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