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Q&A with Mark S. Daskin

Mark S. Daskin is the Clyde W. Johnson Professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on supply chain network design in general and facility location models in particular as well as healthcare operations. He will be giving his keynote presentation at the IIE Annual Conference Monday, June 1. 

What is the most exciting development or, conversely, the most pressing challenge in the field of industrial and systems engineering today?

If I had to identify a single pressing challenge, at least in academia, a continual challenge is trying to make sure that the models and the research that we do is relevant to the real world. It’s sometimes too easy to develop elegant models that are nice just because they are elegant, not necessarily because they have any direct relevance to real problems. So that’s why I think it’s always important to be working with real decision-makers, real stakeholders in any of these problems.

I don’t want to say there’s not room for people who do theoretical work, but I think that at least a significant subset of us need to make sure that what we’re doing has a basis in real-world problems. I think that at the same time, doing that without using cutting-edge theory and methodology is not what we want to be doing in academia. We want to be very sure that we are advancing the state of the art, but I think that it should always be grounded in some notion of a real problem. I very much value the work that people who do theory and methodology do. But for the people who are not doing theory and methodology, who are doing modeling perhaps, that work should be grounded in real-world problems.

What do you plan to discuss in your keynote presentation?

I’m actually going to be talking about some work that a Ph.D. student and I did in a number of different contexts at the University of Michigan aimed at creating more diverse groups. In one case this was for the Engineering Global Leadership Program. In the larger example, what we were looking at is assigning over 1,300 incoming freshmen to discussion groups for a book that all incoming freshmen in the College of Engineering read. We wanted those groups to be as diverse as possible along the five or six different broad categories of gender, whether you were an in-state or an out-of-state student, about six or seven different categories of ethnicity, whether you were a U.S. citizen or not, and whether you were the first person in your family to go to college. And we wanted to maximize the diversity within each of these reading groups. So this was a very large optimization model that we were actually able to solve quite effectively.

I want to talk a little bit about that research, but more broadly I want to talk about why I think diversity is an issue that industrial engineers should be focused on because there is some literature that talks about why having diverse work groups improves productivity. Industrial engineering is about workforce and work productivity and enhancing that. Therefore, we should be interested in issues of diversity. Aside from all the other reasons that people in our society should be interested in issues of diversity – the equity issues, the access issues – but just from a purely professional perspective, I think it behooves us as professional industrial engineers to be concerned about how we enhance diversity. The literature that I’ve read often suggests that it’s not necessarily diversity along superficial dimensions but rather diversity that’s aimed at bringing new ideas to the table.

I think the wrong kind of diversity can actually degrade productivity. If I put together a work group with one person who spoke German and one person who spoke French and one person who spoke Chinese, it would be very diverse in terms of language, but they wouldn’t be able to communicate and they wouldn’t get much done. And that’s a pretty clear example of a case where diversity just to be diverse may actually degrade performance. So you have to be a little bit nuanced about it, but I think that if we are nuanced about it and think about it, then it should be something that industrial engineers should be concerned about because it can enhance productivity.

What would you like attendees to take away from your presentation?

If it’s done right, diversity can be one of the ways in which we can enhance productivity within an organization by identifying diverse work groups and using some of the mathematical modeling that we have for assigning people to work groups that enhances diversity.

For more information about Mark Daskin and the other IIE Annual Conference keynote speakers, go to the Keynote Speakers page. 



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