How to Get Started With Simulation

Many business analysts decide that they want to start using simulation not just because it’s flashy and high-brow, but also out of pure necessity. These business analysts have taken their spreadsheets as far as they can and are at a point where the spreadsheets are becoming unwieldy and ineffective at providing reliable answers to their important business questions.

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These analysts often ask “How do I get started with simulation?” Is there a course that one can take? Is there a tutorial? Is there a book? Ultimately what’s the best way to get started? Here are 4 questions that I suggest they consider:

Question 1: Are you sure Simulation is for you?

I have a belief that most people can learn most things if they are motivated enough, and I believe the same is true with simulation. However, there are some skills that make the learning curve easier:

  • Are you logical and process oriented? The guts that drive simulation models are driven by process logic. If you’re able to look at a real-life business process and convert it into a meaningful and clear process flow map then this is a good thing.
  • Have you done any programming? There is a lot of “If … then” logic in simulation models, and having experience with programming (including VBA and complex spreadsheet logic) will only work in your favor. Simulation models are almost never programmed correctly the first time, so debugging skills are also very important.
  • Are you good at handling a lot of data? There is a lot of data handling to estimate inputs for simulation models, and most simulation model will generate a mass of data. This is a very important skill in being an effective simulation modeler.
  • Are you good at experimentation? Simulation is like a sand box, and experimenting with your model is a key part of developing, calibrating, and validating your models, as well as designing and carrying out scenario analysis.
  • Can you work without perfect information? It’s a routine experience that simulation models will need parameters and factors that have no available data. The simulation modeler often needs to form credible assumptions as a workaround to having to deal with incomplete information.

If you can answer “yes” to the above questions then simulation might be a good tool for you.

Question 2: Are you just dabbling or are you ready for a deep dive?

Simulation is often described as both an art and a science. Simulation is one of those skills that seems to be better developed through “doing” rather than reading books or taking courses. I’d highly recommend taking courses if you’re convinced that simulation is for you (I taught a simulation course for 5 years at the
University of British Columbia). However, what you learn from a course won’t really stick unless you are going to be able to work on a real simulation project shortly afterwards.

Simulation is one of those skills where it’s difficult to be effective until you’ve been working with it for a while (i.e. your second simulation project will be much better and easier than your first,… your third simulation project will be even better, and so on). If this is something that you’re just looking to add to your resume then I wouldn’t bother. People who hire talent for their simulation skills can easily differentiate between a dabbler versus an experienced practitioner.

A “deep dive” simulation project allows a new simulation modeler to really understand what they can and can’t do with a simulation model, the effort involved with various model elements, and the associated value that those elements add to the final conclusions. New simulation modelers sometimes learn through their first intense simulation project that simulation isn’t really for them.

Coloring numbers

Question 3: Do you have a “Simulation Worthy” problem?

Simulation is an invaluable tool if it’s applied to an important problem that cannot be solved using traditional tools. But, if you could effectively answer the same problem using a spreadsheet, then why wouldn’t you just use a spreadsheet? If the business problem isn’t important enough to justify spending days (sometimes weeks) of effort programming and validating your model, then you could be creating a situation where your organization perceives simulation modeling as high effort for low value.

Ideally, you would be in a situation where there is a business problem that has high value (i.e. the potential to support a million-dollar decision, or a strong potential to reduce risk, or increase efficiency). And, ideally, the problem involves complex inter-relationships between resources, and/or processes – the type of logic that is very hard or impossible to set up in a spreadsheet. And finally, the situation requires a handling of uncertainty and variability in order to fully address the business problem. We would argue that if you don’t have a problem that is “simulation worthy” then it’s best to wait until you do.

Question 4: Do you have a good example to start from?

Simulation is not like other mathematical and theoretical disciplines, in that there is no single “right answer”. There are many different ways of modeling a system, all of which can be valid (provided that the assumptions are disclosed), and it often comes down to a balancing act of model accuracy versus model complexity. Simulation modelers often add more detail and logic into their models in an effort to improve the accuracy of the model, but as they do so, the model typically becomes more complicated, more difficult to debug, more difficult to validate, and more difficult to run scenario analysis on.

When new simulation modelers are getting started it can be difficult to make these decisions. A great way to learn is to partner up with a mentor – ideally someone who has done a few simulation projects where the results actually supported a decision outcome. The INFORMS Simulation Society is a good place to start (), and if you can do it, attend the annual Winter Simulation Conference next November.

If you can’t find a mentor, try learning from example models. Our company AnalysisWorks, made a simple simulation model of an Emergency Department that is 100% free and available for
download
. Without any programming, you can interact with this 3D animated model to get a sense of the types of things you can do with a simulation model.

Simulation Model




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