<br>Gralla Laboratory


Our research investigates ways to combine the strengths of human decision-makers and mathematical models in order to make better decisions in the design and operation of complex engineering systems. We focus on understanding the advantages of each approach, and designing organizations, systems, and tools to support better decision-making in practice.

Additional information is provided below, organized into the following areas. We are also developing work in other application areas; please contact Erica Gralla, egralla@gwu.edu, for further information.

Humanitarian operations and logistics
Human decision-making in engineering systems
Systems engineering and design in context

Humanitarian operations and logistics

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Supply chains are a key component of emergency response, delivering goods and services to those affected by disasters. Our research investigates supply chain management in the challenging context of humanitarian aid, in which decisions must be made quickly based on very little information.

Sample research project

Objectives of aid delivery: The goals of aid delivery are not always clear. To best alleviate human suffering, which cargo should be loaded onto a truck and where should it be sent? We quantified the trade-offs between multiple objectives of humanitarian aid delivery (such as speed, cost, cargo delivered, and prioritization by commodity and location) using a stated preference survey. The results show how expert humanitarian logisticians view the objectives of aid delivery, and provide a way to evaluate proposed aid delivery plans and guide optimization models.

Research topics
  • Context-appropriate models for disaster response operations management
  • Process improvement in disaster response organizations
  • Information and situational awareness for decision-making
  • Exercises and performance measurement
  • Models for prioritizing and routing aid deliveries
  • Needs assessment after disasters

Related publications

E. Gralla, J. Goentzel, and C. Fine. “Assessing trade-offs among multiple objectives for humanitarian aid delivery using expert preferences.” Production and Operations Management 23 (6), June 2014, pp. 978-898.

E. Gralla and J. Goentzel, "Humanitarian transportation planning: evaluation of practice-based heuristics and recommendations for improvement." European Journal of Operational Research 269, pp. 436-450.

Human decision-making in engineering systems

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In urgent, information-poor, multi-objective contexts, human decision-makers may play an essential role, relying on intuition and experience to make good decisions with little data. On the other hand, mathematical models can better handle complex information and search large decision spaces for the best solutions. Our research seeks to develop better decision-making approaches by understanding and building upon the strengths of people and models. These topics are explored in the domains of disaster response, systems engineering and design, and others.

Sample research project

Problem-formulating and problem-solving in aid delivery planning: We studied human problem-solving in the context of humanitarian aid delivery planning, to learn how experts make sense of and solve urgent, real-world operational problems. We observed ten teams of experienced logisticians responding to a simulated week-long emergency, in a training conducted by the United Nations World Food Programme and the Logistics Cluster. We used ethnographic methods to learn how people planned the use of their fleet and prioritized deliveries. The resulting descriptions of human problem-formulating and decision-making processes contribute to theory on human problem-solving, and enable the identification of better methods for organizing and supporting aid delivery planning in practice.

Research Topics
  • Human behavior's influence on engineering system design and operation
  • Measuring and modeling human behavior in complex engineering systems
  • Problem-solving and problem-formulating processes
  • Performance measurement and training

Related publications

E. Gralla, J. Goentzel, and C. Fine (2016). “Problem formulation and solution mechanisms: a behavioral study of humanitarian transportation planning.” Production and Operations Management, 25 (1) pp. 22-35.

Z. Szajnfarber and E. Gralla (2017). "Qualitative methods for engineering systems: why we need them and how to use them." Systems engineering, 20 (6), pp. 497-511.

Systems Engineering and Design in Context

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Systems engineering and design are generally accomplished by people, within organizations, and under conditions of limited information. These and many other elements of the "context" influence the activities and decisions of engineers and designers. Our research seeks to understand how these contextual elements influence design/engineering processes such as problem-solving and decision-making, in order to better support systems engineering and design activities.

Samples of research

Decomposition in Facility Design: When a design problem is too complex to solve all at once, design teams typically decompose complex design problems into sets of related subproblems. The choice of decomposition may impact the character and quality of the final solution. Our research observes teams designing facilities to understand how they decompose the problem and how their choice of decomposition impacts the final solution.

Research topics
  • Human decision-making in engineering design
  • Influence of problem and organizational decomposition on the design process
  • Representational uncertainty: when the problem cannot be understood completely before it is solved

Related publications

E. Gralla and Z. Szajnfarber (2016). “Characterizing representational uncertainty in system design and operations.” Systems Engineering 19 (6) pp. 535-548.

J. Herrmann, M. Morency, A. Anparasan, and E. Gralla. "Evaluating clustering algorithms for identifying design subproblems." Journal of Mechanical Design 140.