What Usain Bolt can teach you about optimization

By: Tom Thai

I often come across C-level executives who are well aware of the complexity of their planning puzzles. These are people who are familiar with the concept of ‘NP-hard problems’, and phrases such as ‘an exponential increase in complexity’ and ‘more possibilities than there are atoms in the universe’. While they suspect they could be solving their planning puzzles better, they’re also deeply skeptical of the claims of ‘solution providers’. After all, aren’t their puzzles virtually unsolvable?

Yes – and no.

It’s true that any business of a significant size will have planning puzzles that are impossible to solve optimally. According to academic research on NP-hard problems, it’s impossible to guarantee that optimal solutions to difficult problems will be found in a reasonable time frame. However, with almost all real-life planning puzzles, you can get excellent results very quickly. How quickly? Seconds and minutes when needed; hours when you can spare the time.

In the real world, we’re more interested in knowing what an excellent result looks like (the 9.63 seconds that won Usain Bolt an Olympic gold) than in theorizing about the fastest time humanly possible. Most of our customers aren’t interested in theoretical discussions either. They want practical results.

The way to those results was summed up by a former CIO of United Airlines. When he discovered that we’d both spent many (too many!) years in academia, he said, “Victor, when we were academics we took simple problems and tried to find very complex solutions to them. Now that we’re in business, we take very complex problems and try to find simple solutions.”

Finding the right solution to your planning puzzle isn’t about aiming for an unknown theoretical optimum. The trick lies in locating practical results that are really, really good – but not necessarily optimal.

After all, what makes more business sense? Arriving at a solution that’s 99% optimal in less than two minutes, or achieving 100% optimality in days, months or even years? Compared with what planners with old-fashioned tools are achieving, a solution that’s 99% optimal could well yield millions of additional dollars per year.

In  many cases, you don’t need to know how good we can ultimately get. We’re perfectly happy, just like Usain Bolt, to significantly outrun the competition.