SEMS Says ... A year of disruptions tests risk management skills

By the Society for Engineering and Management Systems Board

November/December 2020

This year has definitely left a lasting impression. Between the elevated numbers of tropical cyclones landfalls in the Southeast, uncontrollable wildfires in the West, early snow blizzards in the upper Midwest coupled with a simultaneous heat wave in the Southwest and that persistent COVID-19 issue, 2020 turned out to be one heck of a year.

On top of all these natural extreme events, there was a national election to boot, which is an extreme event in its own right. The combined cumulative shock of these disruptions seemed to intensify the complexities and challenges of re-establishing an operational equilibrium. Physical environment operations increase the exposure threat of malfunctions to engineering and management systems.

Since a major tenet of our discipline is the ability to make decisions under risk and uncertainty, understanding the risk analysis process is fundamental. One could define risk as the probability of an adverse outcome. Recall that the risk analysis process consists of three primary pillars: risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. Risk assessment consists of determining the likelihood and severity of risk occurrence. Risk management consists of how to handle risk, typically via a combination of risk avoidance, risk transfer, risk mitigation or risk acceptance. Risk communication consists of the risk information flow to stakeholders.

Since COVID-19 is an existing hazard influencing a medley of risks (economic, health, social, etc.), the current conditions necessitate risk management awareness and assume a more profound significance in our decision calculation, particularly concerning COVID-19 protocols. The risk decision analytics regarding COVID-induced adverse outcomes must center efforts on issues concerning balancing specific risk severity versus risk-handling measures. While the risk decisions in this elevated risky and uncertain environment may appear untenable, the basic handling measures for risk management remain the same.

Regarding COVID, a quick survey of the present operational landscape presents a multitude of risk-handling decision variants employed by others. Many governmental entities, corporations, institutions and individuals have simply withdrawn from the physical environment and transitioned to a virtual environment, thus demonstrating risk avoidance. Some folks adhere to wearing masks and social distancing when engaging in physical environment, thus demonstrating risk mitigation. Some folks do not utilize any measures engaging with the physical environment, thus demonstrating risk acceptance. Additionally, supplemental federal economic, military, health and curative aid and support packages demonstrate risk transfer. Most folks utilized a combination of these risk approaches based on perceived threats.

The Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers is no exception to this predicament. Consider the IISE Annual Conference & Expo 2020 originally scheduled for May 30-June 2 in New Orleans. The COVID-19 hazard required IISE leadership to apply the risk analysis process to evaluate the conference. Initially, leadership decided the conference would proceed as planned in New Orleans, but it was moved to Oct. 31-Nov. 3. As the COVID-19 hazard persisted, the leadership reassessed the risks of physically attending the conference in New Orleans and decided this action would exceed the risk tolerance of many IISE members, as well as the organization. Therefore, like many other organizations, IISE leadership transitioned the 2020 Annual Conference to a virtual environment Nov. 1-3 with options for asynchronous and synchronous delivery.

The major 2020 disruptions created a new paradigm changing the way many work, study, shop and socialize. Interconnectivity is the key driving this new virtual world between homes, businesses and others. However, this new environment introduces a completely new set of potential susceptibilities to consider and resolving these types of riskbased engineering operational challenges resides squarely within the domain of engineering and management systems.

Lastly, if anyone has any questions, wishes to contribute to the efforts of the SEMS Board of Directors or to the Industrial Management magazine, please do not hesitate to contact me. Until next time, stay safe.

– Henry Lester is SEMS president; contact him at Brian Smith is SEMS past president.

IISE awards top achievers at Annual Conference 2020

IISE shone its spotlight on the top achievers in the industrial and systems engineering world during the Honors & Awards presentation at the virtual IISE Annual Conference & Expo 2020.

The coveted Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Industrial Engineering Award, the Institute’s highest and most esteemed honor, went to Deborah Nightingale, a distinguished professor at the University of Central Florida and former researcher and educator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Other top IISE awards given included Fellow Awards to Laura Albert of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Alexandre Dolgui of IMT Alantique Tech University; Dan Epstein of ConAm Group; Paul Griffin of Purdue University; Charles Hochstein of USPS; Robert Inman of GM; Erick Jones of the University of Texas at Arlington; Mohammad Khasawneh of Binghamton University; Zhenyu (James) Kong of Virginia Tech; Jingshan Li of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Suzanna Long of Missouri University of Science & Technology; Brad Parrish of FedEx; Susan Schall of SOS Consulting; Julie Swann of North Carolina State University; Bill Tolo of Best Buy; and Teresa Wu of Arizona State University.

The Albert G. Holzman Distinguished Educator Award went to Kailash Bafna of Western Michigan University. The Fred C. Crane Distinguished Service Award went to John Corliss of PEER Consultants. Amrika Ramjewan of the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville was winner of the inaugural IISE Cup.

For a full list of 2020 winners, visit

Problem Solved: The IISE Podcast delves into topical issues

Tune into Season 2 episodes of Problem Solved: The IISE Podcast sponsored by the University of Louisville’s online programs to hear discussions on issues of timely interest to industrial and systems engineers.

“NASA industrial engineer sets sights on Mars” features Angie Jackman, an industrial engineer with NASA and project manager for the Mars Ascent Vehicle mission, discussing ISEs’ role in the space program with IISE member and Purdue University professor Barrett Caldwell.

“Election Day process improvement via industrial and systems engineering” highlights research by IISE members and academic leaders Laura Albert and Gretchen Macht on streamlining procedures for in-person voting.

“Israeli IE professor reflects on a life of problem-solving,” features Shaul Ladany, a decorated educator and researcher, a Holocaust survivor and an Olympian and world-record holder in race walking.

All are available at as well as on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify.