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January 12, 2009


Jose Antonio Munoz Mata

I agree absolutely with Roger. In fact, I am gonna use this paper for my doctoral report...as suggested my tutor in pre-thesis paper. I come from business arena and knocked my head against the wall of current methodologies used at OM research.

Creativity is the key!...Will elaborate more deeply a meaningful approach based on Schemenner´s cutting edge statements...based on the 60´s works.

Management within any field is very far from Physics and Maths methods to moving forward on innovation and valid knowledge base to be applied on the real practice of management.

José Antonio Muñoz Mata
Ph.D. candidate
University of Seville (Spain)

Ivor P. Morgan

To respond to Roger Schmenner’s article fully would take more space that will be allowed me here but I agree substantially with his arguments. However, though the field has developed theories, many languish in articles that seem to have been forgotten. We have reached a point where myopia often rules. In part this may be due to lip service to the literature search undertaken but may also be because a connection to the overall situation is missing. A recent case experience may be all too familiar.
After waiting half an hour for my annual skin examination at a well known healthcare clinic west of Boston, I asked the doctor’s secretary about the schedule situation and was told she was running 40 minutes late. Since I live near this clinic, I suggested that someone could have called me with this information. The secretary suggested that I call ahead in future, but I responded that the contract breaker should be the one to repair it.
After one hour of waiting, I asked again about the situation. My voice was raised a little and this brought everyone in the waiting room into the conversation. Two of the waiting patients told me that they had waited for over two hours. And furthermore, one said that he had to wait more than two in hours in the organization’s main hospital, which charged for parking and raised the rates substantially after two hours.
I walked around the clinic waiting room and read the plaques on the wall. They all displayed the word “Excellence” along with a year. Clearly there was another view. After one hour and a half of waiting, I went in for my appointment. I related the situation to my doctor who responded that patients cancel appointments and this could result in a wait for her.
So what is at issue here? First is the time cost to the patient. Second is the unnecessary exposure of the patient to disease, since it is safe to assume that some of those waiting in a clinic are suffering from communicable disease, and a fair chance that bugs live in the clinic that we do not want to meet. Third is the lack of communication—and perhaps honesty—within the system that created a false time expectation. And fourth is the declaration of excellence festooning the walls.
Myopia can create processes that make no overall sense because they are not connected to obvious system goals. This case has processes for everything, including one for producing plaques declaring excellence. My doctor’s response that canceled appointments result in wait time for her was less than compelling since I have had to wait for every appointment in my over two decades with this organization—and every one with her.
Sadly many other examples come to mind and are not restricted to healthcare or services. We have eyes to see and many theories not in use. The obvious requires no academic clothing.

Simon Wu

Following is my comment on the essay – “Too Much Theory, Not Enough Understanding”,

Theories are generally used to interpret the phenomenon or to solve the problem, so they are invented while necessity or after inspiration and creativity. For example, in order to interpret the falling apple, Newton invented the famous Newton Theory; in order to improve the inventory and forecasting, there were many researchers that used different models with different hypotheses to verify their theories. Although, hypotheses are tested to gain facts, it's remained lots of issues after applying these theories, such as error forecasting, overproduction, high inventory...etc. Therefore, it's very important that the theory should be not only tested, but also practiced. That is the reason why Toyota Production System (TPS) used Pull System, JIT kanban and one-piece flow to manage or adjust its production and supply chain for preventing overproduction and bullwhip effect. So, it's even needed decades of practice and proof to build a successful system like TPS.

Simon Wu

Thomas Smith

I resonate with Roger's viewpoint. I would like to raise a few parallel points in hopes of furthering and fostering this discussion.

First, although I have tried to keep up in the field, I am struck, as Roger points out, at the proliferation of "theory" in the OM field. I am sure I don't know all that is out there. For example, a very quick perusal of my files (I randomly chose articles filed under S, V, and W) revealed articles on the following "theories"; the theory of performance frontiers, theory of production competence, resource-based theory, unified services theory, theory of swift, even flow; focused factory, and customer contact. All of these are either squarely in the realm of OM or on the edges of our discipline. I am not commenting on the quality of these theories, only trying to point out the quantity. Realize that this search took me all of about 5 minutes. Imagine what one could come up with if an extensive search was undertaken. Sounds like an interesting, timely and useful project.

Second, in reading Schmenner's essay, I am reminded of Wacker's article in JOM (1998) entitled "A definition of theory: research guidelines for different theory-building research methods in operations management." I believe we would be well served if we required the adherence of his definition of theory before we gave it such a label, and also required that these theories adhere to the virtues of "good" theory espoused in his paper.

Finally, can/should we as a community of scholars come to some sort of consensus on the handful of theories that are truly "good" theories and worthy of our collective attention?

Thank you to Roger for putting his thoughts out for public scrutiny.

Jan Holmström

Roger Schmenner correctly points out how we in operations management do not appreciate theory as the physicists do, that we do not get excited about tearing down prevailing theories and erecting new ones that can handle the facts better. I think the problem is that we do not appreciate the preceding step to theory, namely the basic and experimental stage of knowledge production. The activity that produces new facts in operations management is not of the large hadron collider type. It is of the innovative management practice type, and the root of the problem is that the field of academic researchers are not sufficiently engaged in developing new practice.

To address the problem of knowledge production in OM Roger Schmenner identifies many important steps that need to be taken, for example accept that important research can be conducted without an explicit theoretical frame of reference. He mentions important historical examples that initially were presented without theoretical explanation, and initially in forums outside academia. Without doubt there are currently many exiting innovative operations management concepts and practices which future generations will wonder why they did not merit publication in out leading academic OM journals. Most probably important innovations of today are not even offered for publication, but even if they were, how would an editor or associate editor without theory be able to distinguish the innovative from the merely new?

I am convinced that the issue of theory and practice in operations management can be resolved. In a recent paper published in Decision Sciences (Holmström, Ketokivi and Hameri, 2009) we discuss how design science in the field of operations management could effectively complement theoretical explanatory research to resolve the knowledge production dilemma. The basic premise is that academic researchers acknowledge that exploration and innovation is a subjective and creative phase that merits academic attention without theoretical explanation. However, design science researchers need to make serious attempts to link new practice to theory. Only in this situation can operations management approach the situation in physics, where new facts leads to new and improved theory to explain the facts. The challenge is to better bridge practice and theory, and this way also theory will become more relevant and vital.

Mikko Ketokivi

What Roger Schmenner is implying, I think, is that in order to understand a real-life phenomenon or problem, we may have to leave the confines of existing paradigms. Real-life problems and puzzling new phenomena in particular seldom map onto specific paradigmatic (=theoretical) domains and thus, trying to understand a novel phenomenon with existing paradigms is akin to trying to play a new game with the old rules.

As long as OM research is about theoretical discourse taking place within paradigms defined by academics, our understanding of novel and emerging phenomena in particular will be hampered--this is only a natural consequence. But to shift to a different course requires a fundamental shift in professional identity and editorial policy, and I do not think the enormity of this shift can be exaggerated. Paradigmatic discourses enable us to make explicit contributions; that is how we demonstrate to our peers we have done something no one else in the past has done; that is how I was trained as a doctoral student; that is how I train doctoral students now. Paradigmatically well-defined discourses are an effective instrument both in evaluating the novelty of an argument as well as in developing a research and publication strategy. Paradigmatic contributions are in many ways our most important institution. Contrasting this with Professor Schmenner’s argument, the situation does look like the all-too-familiar dilemma: theories, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

I want to highlight here that theories are perhaps the most important instrument through which researchers understand one another. The ability of theories to help us understand real-life phenomena, in turn, well, that is an entirely different question. But if we wish to reduce the importance of paradigms (=theories) in the future, something must be offered in replacement for a scientific community and in particular, an effective peer-evaluation process to survive intact. I am not sure we are anywhere near a realistically operational alternative, but I did interpret Professor Schmenner’s essay as an invitation to start a rigorous debate on the issue.

Jeff Heyl

I first want to say that I essentially agree with all of the points you have made in your essay. We do have a flawed approach to theory, attempting to build new wings on existing structures that should have been long ago demolished while applying the newest methodologies to address issues of marginal interest or importance. This situation was made startling clear to me some two decades ago when I attended a UK professional conference. The difference between European research and the US research to which I was accustomed was dramatic. My observation at the time was the European research dealt with much more interesting questions but used weak (or occasionally inappropriate) methodologies. In other words, the European approach was interesting and relevant. Sadly, I believe that the globalization of our profession has conspired to reduce this divergence with the world adopting the US academic approach. But unfortunately, Roger, I fear you are tilting at windmills.

I see two reasons why the changes you call for are unlikely to be implemented. The first is the increasing pressure to publish in refereed journals. Blame this on rating systems, accreditation requirements, or your driver of choice, but the pressures are defiantly increasing. However, with quantity comes some sacrifices. In the business world one need not look further than Toyota. According to Jim Womack, much of the responsibility for Toyota’s current troubles derive from their quest for growth (lean.org, 1/1/09). But as Cervantes wrote, “Take away the motive, and you take away the sin.” There are authors out there who care not in least about their actual contribution, they are only concerned about the number of articles published. Again from Cervantes, “There are men that will make you books, and turn them loose into the world, with as much dispatch as they would do a dish of fritters.” So, less pressure to publish, less questionable work.

The second reason why change is unlikely is the, shall we say, “pride” of the author. Most people like to see their work published and gain some intrinsic reward from the recognition. No problem with that, but once again from Cervantes, “No fathers or mothers think their own children ugly; and this self-deceit is yet stronger with respect to the offspring of the mind.” In today’s environment the fact of publication seems more important than the contribution made, and everyone thinks their work is of significant importance!

So I have little hope that the reforms you call for will actually come to pass. There are severe pressures working against this proposal, and only the courageous (in the Don Quixote sense) are likely to be riding their trusty steed across the countryside in pursuit of worthy targets. It takes quite an effort to change the course of a river, and I believe as you do that we have a strong, if misguided one, flowing around us today. But without change, the outlook is not promising and we will continue to see the same sort of publications in the future we see today. One final bit of Cervantes’ wisdom from 400 years ago, “Never look for birds of this year in the nests of the last.”

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