Final Five

IISE fellow Eileen Van Aken is professor and head of the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech and the institute’s senior vice president, international.

What is your favorite research project ever?Eileen Van Aken

Working with a local hospital to implement lean production principles in the operating room allowed me to work with so many different types of people – faculty colleagues, graduate students, undergraduate research students, nurses, technicians and surgeons. We investigated how implementing lean tools could reduce nonvalue-added activities, reduce delays, improve the turnaround time in between surgical cases and improve the on-time start of the first case of the day. We also studied how rapid improvement events could improve employee attitudes and perceptions, not just objective measures. The hospital realized significant improvement in a number of these measures.

Why does IISE and its subgroups seem to do a good job with gender diversity?

One of the things our students have always told us that they find appealing about industrial and systems engineering is the focus on people as part of the systems we design, as well as the broad exposure to many aspects about organizations and decision-making. In our department, about a third of our students and a quarter of our faculty are women. I see similar patterns in other ISE departments, and it’s important that leaders in our professional society are representative of our profession. We still have a long way to go, especially with other under-represented groups, but we have a strong foundation to build upon.

What are the challenges of running a top-ranked ISE department?

One of the biggest challenges is being able to interpret and “read” the emerging trends in work and society that have implications for the ISE discipline, and then focus resources and attention to respond to those trends – whether it be our curriculum and student experiences or our research and scholarship. There are so many opportunities to make an impact, and I look forward to seeing how our department and our profession evolve.

What attracted you to spend the majority of your career at Virginia Tech?

I considered going elsewhere after my Ph.D. but had the opportunity to stay for a faculty position at Virginia Tech. I also was attracted to the strength of the management systems engineering group, the focus of my graduate research. Also, our department is large enough that I’ve never felt stagnant by staying. Last, there are so many new things going on – innovations in education or research to become involved with, new buildings, new programs, etc. I am really glad to be at VT, but I also value the knowledge I gain about what’s going on in other places through my volunteer roles in IISE, ABET and ASEM. Learning from others and staying connected to what’s going on elsewhere is extremely important to stay current and relevant.

What drew you to industrial engineering?

I fell in love with ISE when I attended the information session that all engineering freshman attend. The concept of designing work systems to work effectively from inception and of improving operations was aligned with the way I’d always thought about things – it was just in my DNA. ISEs make such a difference in organizations, and I love being a part of this.

– Interview by Michael Hughes