"It's all about increasing efficiency," said nuclear engineering graduate student Rick Weil, describing a work prioritization technique he developed and hopes to put into practice at MIT.
While some of the details of Mr. Weil's methodology are complex, the theory behind it is simple: take subjectivity out of the decision-making process. Prioritizing work is a perennial and universal problem, and he believes his computer program can take some of the guesswork out of it.
In a department like MIT's Department of Facilities, which is responsible for a great deal of new construction as well as infrastructure renewal projects, there's always much more work than can be done with available funds. Therefore, decisions must be made about what gets done immediately and what gets set aside and evaluated again later.
Some items are obvious. When safety and economic concerns are clearly involved, for instance, decisions can be made rather easily. But after this first tier of projects is identified, things become less clear, and this is where Mr. Weil's methodology comes into play. "It gives objectivity and transparency to a subjective and opaque process," he said.
The basis of the methodology, which Mr. Weil developed with Professor of Nuclear Engineering George Apostolakis, is actually not complicated. "A numerical performance index is assigned to each item requiring prioritization," Mr. Weil said. "The item with the highest numerical score receives the highest priority.
Joe Gifun, assistant director of Facilities for infrastructure and special projects, is impressed with the work. "Rick's methodology enables several people or an individual to examine many possibilities and alternatives in a consistent, objective and efficient manner," he said.
"We're so appreciative and grateful to Professor Apostolakis and Mr. Weil for sharing their research, and to Dr. Dimitrios Karydas of FM Global for contributing his time and expertise," said Victoria Sirianni, director of the Department of Facilities. "This methodology will help us in the future as we continue our infrastructure renewal effort here at MIT." Facilities recently published a report containing information on infrastructure renewal projects entitled "Planning, Persistence, and Improved Communication," which focuses on infrastructure renewal.
Mr. Weil's technique involves a six-step decision analysis process. One of its key features is its reliance on deliberation to reach consensus among the people involved in making the decision about the objectives of the prioritization and their relative weights. This is followed by additional deliberation on the output of the resulting prioritization scheme.
The first step in the process is to come up with a list of objectives. Many of these are universal -- safety; cost; effect on relationships with the public, government and other constituencies; and impact on the environment. Once these objectives are established, the technique measures the extent to which each objective is satisfied. Weights are then assigned to these performance measures using the Analytic Hierarchy Process, a hierarchical method of comparisons in which preferences among objectives are converted into numerical weights.
The decision-maker then assesses the performance measures and does consistency checks. Finally, the decision-maker validates the results through benchmarking, or comparison with several previous items that were correctly prioritized by an existing technique. If the results are similar, the fundamental objectives and assumption are determined to be good; if not, the decision-maker must reexamine them.
After finishing his thesis this semester, Mr. Weil will return to his native Chicago to begin work in management consulting. For now, however, he is excited by the prospect of using his technique to benefit MIT. "Everybody has these kinds of problems," he said. "There's always much more work than can be accomplished."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 14, 2001.