Centre for Operations Excellence

What is operations research?

About operations research & analytics

Operations research (OR) is “the discipline of applying advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions” (Operations Research: The Science of Better). It accomplishes this by applying highly sophisticated analytical methods to attain optimal solutions with regards to the specific needs and challenges of organizations.

You might be surprised at how much OR impacts your life without your knowledge. From bus schedules to car rental rates to how a call centre is run, OR has contributed billions of dollars in savings and benefits and has enhanced the performance of the government, the non-profit sector and corporations in a variety of industries.

OR has broad applicability and embraces a wide variety of career opportunities and work styles. OR methods have been successfully deployed in areas such as health care, aviation, manufacturing, finance, telecommunications, shipping and transportation. Today, thousands of individuals pursue careers in OR and their work is integral to our information-intensive, technology-based economy.

Benefits of operations research & analytics

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In our increasingly complex world, organizations are operating under different conditions than even a few years ago. One of these differences is the extent to which new enterprise applications and software can produce mass amounts of data, which makes the task of turning data into business insight daunting to say the least.

This is where OR and analytics come in.

OR and analytics are catered to helping you capitalize on these developments. The discipline utilizes specialized techniques to assess complex situations and discern answers pertinent to enhancing performance and decision-making.

Problems solved

Organizations around the world and in every sector have overwhelming incentives to adopt an OR and analytics approach. These include:

  • Performance Improving decision-making by embedding model-driven intelligence into an organization’s information systems
  • Productivity Increasing the productivity of processes and personnel
  • Cost reduction Discerning ways to minimize cost or investment
  • Forecasting Allowing for more accurate forecasting and planning
  • Scheduling Improving scheduling to meet staffing and equipment needs
  • Pricing Dynamically pricing services and products
  • Profits Increasing revenue or return on investment
  • Resources Gaining greater utilization and yield from limited resources
  • Risk Measuring risk via quantitative means and realizing factors critical to managing and minimizing risk


OR and analytics can help when...

  1. You have all this data. Now what? Amassing data is one thing, but utilizing it to extract insight is another. OR and analytics can help you make sense of large amounts of data as well as understand what is further needed for future analyses.

  2. You face complex decisions. If you face many difficult decisions and have no idea where to start, OR and analytics specialists may be able to help by building intelligence into key systems to uncover the best course of action.

  3. You are having problems with processes. As any manager knows, the processes which drive an organization’s day-to-day activities play a critical role to the bottom line of the company. OR and analytics can significantly improve these processes and thereby increase overall productivity.
  4. You want to manage risk. Assessing risk factors and balancing risk against expected gains is never an easy task. But what OR and analytics does is it helps you quantify risk, which is key to controlling it.
  5. You want to differentiate yourself from the competition. In today’s world, it is difficult to differentiate yourself based on products and services alone. But OR and analytics experts can help you pull ahead of the pack by making you an OR and analytics competitor!

The operations research & analytics toolbox

OR and analytics is primarily a problem-solving process. However, over the years OR and analytics has accumulated a wide set of tools, models and methods that are widely applicable to operations problems. 
These include:

Business models Decision analysis Optimization Probabilistic theory System statistics
Process maps Decision trees Linear programming Stochastic processes Data analysis
Supply chain analysis Multicriteria methods Integer programming Queueing theory Regression models and forecasting
Transportation networks Risk analysis Network optimization Simulation analysis Survey methods


Applications of operations research and analytics

Successful OR and analytics applications can be found across all industries dealing with challenges such as planning, routing, scheduling, forecasting, process analysis and decision analysis. The following are some examples of the COE's experience.

Transportation and travel

Airlines depend on the effective use of OR techniques to ensure that they are generating profits. For instance, Yield Management helps fill more seats at different prices. Other applications include improving the efficiency of Vancouver International Airport’s passenger transportation systems and the efficiency of HandyDART’s transportation network (a service for passengers with mobility challenges).

Manufacturing and supply chain

Longer supplier lead times and growing customer expectations have increased the demand for better forecasting. This is why it is imperative that manufacturers, whether they make chemicals or canned foods, are able to reduce supply risks, improve inventory management, and improve distribution systems.

Health care

Hospitals turn to OR to optimize patient flow, usage of facilities (such as imaging facilities) and surgical block schedules. For instance, Fraser Health Authority models patient pathways for capacity planning, BC Cancer Agency employs chemotherapy scheduling analysis and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority performs efficiency assessment of porter operations.

Customer service

Labour-intensive service industries can employ OR techniques to carefully manage shifts to ensure target service performance while remaining cost effective. Examples include improving order delivery in drive-thru services at a fast food chain, improving employee shift scheduling for a ski resort company and improving customer service levels for a beverage company.


OR plays a key role in modernizing government services. This includes exploring approaches to better manage performance-related contracts, assessing government call-centers and evaluating national defense systems. Specifically, risk analysis of major construction projects in BChad been employed for WorkSafeBC leading to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Financial services

OR addresses issues such as portfolio and risk management, planning and analysis of customer service. It is widely employed in Credit Risk Management – a vital area for lenders needing to find the optimum balance between risk and revenue. Another example is OR’s role in helping an investment firm identify investor behavior and segmentation of retail clients.

Operations research and analytics professionals

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Today, professionals in OR and analytics have an important role in both the public and private sectors. OR professionals inform public officials on topics such as energy policy, defense, health care, water resource planning, and criminal justice. They also address a wide variety of issues in communication systems, computer design and networking, transportation, finance and manufacturing.

There are many ways to engage OR professionals. For instance, companies can benefit from in-house expertise, independent consultants or even a mixture of internal and external resources.

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    Centre for Operations Excellence
    2053 Main Mall
    Vancouver, British Columbia
    Canada V6T 1Z2