A Very Operations Christmas
In response to this challenge, I’ve decided to reflect on how my training in Operations could assist me in preparing for the Christmas holidays. I find it fascinating when business and mathematical concepts can also be applied to other parts of everyday life.
Plan backwards, not forwards (Mathematical Programming, Project Management): For those of us who plan for Christmas, we tend to plan forward according to time slots we have available. Thus we may shop for presents the weekend before Christmas, and plan to buy the things needed for Christmas on the 23rd. However, this approach can cause us to make big mistakes, as we don’t notice that before we can, say, shop for presents, we need to get a list of demands wants, from the gift recipients. Also, this year Christmas falls on a weekend, so plans to shop for presents the weekend before can quickly fall apart.
Instead, consider using an operations technique and plan backwards. Start at Christmas Day and ask yourself “In order to have a good Christmas, what will I need to have at the 25th?” Then move backwards to the 24th, 23rd, etc., and on each day label what you need to do in order to meet your Christmas goals.
Focus on Processes, not Outcomes (Manufacturing, Quality Control): Let’s face it. We’ve all had excellent Christmas’ ruined by one malcontent who happens to be related to us, or by a stubborn turkey that even in death resisted the oven’s demands to become palatable. Randomness happens to us all, and there’s no way to make sure that the gift recipient will appreciate his present.
However, we can at least make sure that we have done our part to minimize variation and randomness ahead of time. Check for obvious disasters in advance (Christmas morning is not the day to check if your oven still works, for example). Make a list of people you may want to buy presents for. If you intend to attend a church service, make sure it is being held on the day you think it is (some churches only hold a Christmas Eve service, for example). All you can do is set the table for a lovely Christmas; what happens when everyone takes a seat at the table is naturally out of your control. Accepting that life will always have an element of stochasticity to it can be surprisingly uplifting.
Optimize according to your Primary Goal (Mathematical Programming). What is the real meaning of Christmas for you? Is your goal to provide a lovely time of community for your family? To rest from your labors for the year and refresh to prepare for the next year? To remember the birth of your Christian Savior and Lord? Whichever it is, make your decisions based on that priority. There are parts of the Christmas tradition I leave out or ignore (sorry about the presents, Dad! kidding), because they don’t fit in with my main priority. If you don’t know what you want…it’s difficult to get it. So why not take just five minutes after reading this email and think about what it is you want out of this time?