empty beer bottle lying in the gras

The beer game

This summer I attended a summer school to support my progress in the field of system dynamics. What place could be better suited to take a summer school on system dynamics than the very cradle of this field. Indeed, my anticipation was not only fed by the fact that it took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but also because parts of the course were taught by John Sterman himself. I was wondering how a course taught at the MIT would be and how it would differ from other courses I took at other Universities. Well, the kick off activity for the summer school was a blast! It was quite unexpected, providing participants with an amazing experience and setting a great atmosphere for the rest of the week.


Maybe it is just me, but when you think of the MIT and people working there, you think of a bunch of geeky people. Not that kind of fun geeky that we know from the TV series the Big-Bang Theory. Rather a boring, but at the same time, incredibly intimidating geeky. I tried to leave prejudice at home to experience the summer school with an open mind. However, even if I would have gone there with all my prejudice, I would have been forced to divest myself of it during the morning session of the first day. Not only because of seeing John Sterman performing (you cannot call this lecturing, he is performing on stage!), but also because of the beer game.


Right, the summer school started with something called the beer game. This was unexpected. Even more unexpected was learning that it is not about drinking beer. Which is for an Austrian (we drink quite a lot of beer) living in Belgium a bit of a disappointment. Nevertheless, the fun and the learning effect of the game redressed for this. The learning effect of the beer game is that large, that I would suggest it being played with students regardless of whether they deal with system dynamics or not.


So, what is this game all about and what do we learn from it?

The beer game is played with at least 4 people and maximum 8 people per table. A tablecloth serves as playing board, that schematically represents a supply chain from crafting beer to final sales. The supply chain is split up in 4 parts, communication between each supply chain step is prohibited (this is to protect participants as feelings may run high!). At each step there is a stock, between the stocks are shipping containers. Having a stock leads to cots in each round played. But having not enough stock and thus not being able to fulfill an order costs even more. The goal is to minimize the costs of the complete supply chain. Hence, at each stage the player needs to anticipate the orders, that need to be fulfilled. The only order fixed is the one at the end of the supply chain. The rest of the orders can be placed by players at each stage.


One might think that the task of the game is an easy one, but it is not. I do not want to tell, what happens, because that would take away the fun of experiencing it yourself. Anyway, there seems to be a pattern of how the game develops. This is an interesting insight, since it tells a lot about the difficulty to manage the supply chain in reality. It shows how hard it is to deal with delays, speculation, insecurity and behavior of other stakeholders.


I can only recommend: PLAY IT!


My research stay was conducted in order to support research activities for the Horizon 2020 project SUFISA (Grant Agreement No. 635577).


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