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July 22, 2009

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Jack Meredith

Dear Editor—I offer a few simple thoughts on your latest JOM Forum piece by M. Holweg and D. P. van Donk: “When is a Conceptual Framework also a Theoretical Contribution?” Clearly, there is a massive literature on the issue of when something is (or is getting close to) “theory” including the works of Dubin, Miles and Huberman, Davis, Zaltman, Emory, and many, many other great names throughout history. Perhaps less well known is that there are also a goodly number of papers on “models,” “concepts,” “frameworks,” and other approaches to “near-theory,” not only in social science, philosophy, systems science, etc. but even in many fields of business (marketing, OB, information systems, strategy), and (surprise!) even in operations, where some of this has been hashed out before. At the risk of sounding a bit nasty (which I’m not), our authors might have done what they criticize in their short paper—launching a new query on a topic that others have previously addressed but no one picked up on to test, evaluate, question, complain, or (if possible) falsify.
This process of constantly rediscovering a “theoretical wheel” while never testing and discarding earlier possible versions of wheels, I term “war stories.” That is, if theory is generated through constant repetition of the process of Description --> Explanation --> Testing --> Description --> ..., each time improving the framework/theory bit by bit, then leaving out one of these three steps will terminally impede the creation of viable theory. [Disclaimer: the above “theory” about theory generation is not biased by evaluation of any earlier literature about theory generation. For more discussion (but probably no further clarity), see Meredith: “Theory Building through Conceptual Methods,” Intr’l. Jr. of Operations and Production Management, 13/5: 3-11, 1993.]
In the good old days of quantitative (only) operations, we erred by ignoring the Description phase of theory generation. That is, we assumed a factory, assumed a job, assumed a machine, etc. and concluded: “This must be a managerial problem.” and then formulated a neat mathematical solution to address it. We Explained our “theoretical” (I prefer the term “hypothetical”) managerial problem and then “Tested” our mathematical solution (e.g., via queuing theory, simulation) and VOILA! –another excellent publication. I call this type of failure in theory building by iterating between Explanation and Testing one of building “ivory-tower prescriptions.”
Occasionally in the old days, we also made the other mistake—leaving out Explanation. We discovered hidden somewhere in a factory or service system a REAL problem—managers even admitted (!) it was a problem for them. We then retreated to our dark offices with our screens brightly waiting for Descriptive “input,” created and Tested an algorithm (or used a software package), and BINGO!—we had THE solution. We gave it to management with great pride in our accomplishment. Of course, it never got used, nor contributed to theory, because we couldn’t Explain how it solved the manager’s problem. (And managers, we now know, would rather keep a problem they understand than employ a solution that they don’t.) This failure of iterating between Description and Testing I term building “black boxes.”
Fortunately, we don’t make those mistakes any more (well, usually; ok, ok—sometimes). We’re much more sophisticated now—we leave out Testing! Hence, we generate innumerable “war stories” as we iterate between Description (primarily based on survey returns, occasionally based on fieldwork) and Explanation. Having now made all the possible versions of mistakes in theory building, it may be time to reflect on what our journals need to require to ensure that theory in operations is being built and nothing in the process is being left out. jack meredith

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