Over-constrained problems, soft constraints and family holiday parties – and why some companies ask for O.R. support

People are having fewer children, families are becoming smaller but some combinatorial problems involving them are becoming harder to solve. New families are facing harder planning and scheduling problems during Christmas and other holidays than their parents or grandparents ever did. Anyway, that’s an interesting way to explain what over-constrained problems and soft constraints are.

Suppose that you are the head of a family and you decide to run a party at Christmas evening or a banquet in the day after. One or two generations ago, it was not that hard: people used to live closer and have lots of children (I mean, more than two at least). In such case, it would not be a disaster if five out of your nine sons are not able to come over. It might be the case that families sharing common members agree on celebrating at different times. Anyway, the other parties would be so close to yours that everybody would eventually step by sometime.

However, with fewer children, people easily moving far away to pursue a career or for resting after retirement, divorced parents and grandparents running concurrent parties (maybe four grandparents married to four step-grandparents sharing a single grandchild), we must agree that pleasing everybody might become impossible.

That´s roughly what happens when some companies look for the help of an Operations Research consultant: they have a set of resources to produce goods or deliver services to their costumers and they are not sure if it became impossible to support the increasing demand with what they have or whether if they are only having a harder time to find a solution.

It might be the case that some constraints are not as important as it appeared to be. An over-constrained problem is said to be a problem upon which too many constraints are imposed, ruling out any possible solution. Looking carefully to the set of constraints, one might realize that some of them represent desirable but not mandatory situations, in which case they actually represent what we call soft constraints.

In the case of the families, what does a couple with no children and four parties in four cities at two different times do? At least in my case, we have to split in order to meet the scale. In the future, we aim at tackling this problem by running the party ourselves. 🙂

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