John D. C. Little

February 1, 1928

Brief Biography

J.D.C. Little

Born in Boston and raised in idyllic Andover, Massachusetts, John Dutton Conant Little attended the prestigious Philips Academy and completed his undergraduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Little decided to take a pause in his education and hitchhiked across the country for ten months and took on such jobs as sheep ranch laborer and car valet. He joined the professional industrial world as an engineer for General Electric before returning to MIT for graduate school.

During his graduate study, Little chose operations research over traditional physics at the suggestion of Philip M. Morse, the founder of OR in the United States. Under Morse, Little became the first operations research doctoral student in the United States. In his dissertation, “Use of Storage Water in a Hydroelectric System”, he proposed what was likely the first non-military application of dynamic programming. Little received his PhD in 1955 and was shortly after drafted into the U.S. Army.

During his two years with the Army, Little served as an analyst of traditional military OR problems such as probabilistic models of land mine warfare. After his discharge in 1957, he accepted a position at Case Institute of Technology where he was first introduced to advertising problems.  Little’s legacy was established by his early work there. As various companies approached the faculty at Case with real-world issues, Little gained the necessary experience to teach an OR graduate course in marketing. It was around this time that he developed Little’s Law (L=λW). Little proved this queueing formula in which the average number of customers in a queueing system (L) was equivalent to the average arrival rate of customers (λ) times the average wait time (W).

Little returned to MIT in 1962 on the faculty of School of Industrial Management. He undertook the improvement of traffic signals. Little went about solving this problem via computational methods rather than traditional hand-drawn graphs, greatly expediting the process. He soon after explored marketing as a source of new OR research. Little became interested in and published papers about problems surrounding advertising budget and media selection. The real world application of his work led him to the realization that few managers actually employed serious management science at the time and provoked his “Models and Managers” paper, considered one of the ten most influential papers published in Management Science. Little’s fascination with the subject culminated in the foundation of Management Decision Systems, Inc. with fellow MIT professor Glen L. Urban. The company eventually merged with Information Resource, Incorporated in 1985.

Little has the distinction of having been elected president of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA), The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS), and the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) that merged ORSA and TIMS. He played a monumental role in merging the two organizations in 1995 and was named the first president of the resulting organization. He is one of only two people (the other being Alfred Blumstein) to serve a president of all three organizations. The INFORMS award for the best paper published in marketing or management science is named in his honor.

Little has been an Institute Professor at M.I.T. (a special rank of the highest honor for MIT faculty) since 1989. He is a dedicated educator across all levels of undergraduate and graduate study. 

Other Biographies

Profiles in Operations Research: John D. C. Little
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Wikipedia Entry for John D.C. Little

INFORMS. Miser-Harris Presidential Gallery: John D. C. Little. Accessed January 27, 2017. (link)

Larson R. (2004) IFOR's Operational Research Hall of Fame: John D. C. Little. International Transactions in Operations Research, 11(2):361-364. (link)

Karagianis L. (2006) The Greatest of MIT's Great Faculty: John Little. Spectrum, Summer 2006. (link)


Massachusetts Institute of Technology, BS 1948

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, PhD 1955 (Mathematics Genealogy


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS

Application Areas

Oral Histories

John D. C. Little (2014) Interview by Robert Klein, September 4, 2014.  Video by Lawrence Gallagher, Cambridge MA

NOTE:  The video chapter transcripts below are searchable, with search results displayed as marks on the time bar above the search box.  Click a mark to jump to the search word or phrase in the video and transcript, or click on any word in the transcript to jump to that point in the video.

Jump to Chapters

Chapter 1: Early life, Through MIT Undergraduate Years
Chapter 2: Hitchhiking Around the US and Arriving at General Electric
Chapter 3: Graduate Work at MIT, With a Dissertation, Under Philip Morse, on Hydroelectric Storage Systems
Chapter 4: The Whirlwind Computer
Chapter 5: Military Service at Fort Monroe
Chapter 6: Getting into Marketing With Russell Ackoff at Case
Chapter 7: Little's Law
Chapter 8: Back at MIT, Working on Traffic Systems, The Traveling Salesman Problem, and Brand and Bound
Chapter 9: Full Time in Marketing Research
Chapter 10: Forming a Company, Management Decision Systems
Chapter 11: "Models and Managers: The Concept of a Decision Calculus"
Chapter 12: Marketing Science ant the Professional Societies
Chapter 13: DSS, OLAP and EXPRESS
Chapter 14: "Big Data" in the 1980's: the Universal Product Code (UPC)
Chapter 15: A Return to Little's Law
Chapter 16: Family Matters

John D. C. Little (2015) Interview by Robert L. Klein. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management. (see embedded YouTube video below)


Memoirs and Autobiographies


Full Curriculum Vitae


Little J. D. C. (2002) Philip M. Morse and the beginnings. Operations Research, 50(1): 146-149. (link)

Little J. D. C. (2002) Life as the first OR doctoral student - and other prehistoric takes. Larson I., ed. in The Operations Research Center at MIT. INFORMS Topics in Operations Research Series: Hannover, MD. 

Awards and Honors

Charles Parlin Award 1978

George E. Kimball Medal 1987

Philip McCord Morse Lectureship 1987

American Marketing Association Paul D. Converse Award 1992

Saul Gass Expository Award 2000

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences Fellow 2002

International Federation of Operational Research Societies' Hall of Fame 2004

Harold Larnder Prize 2010

Professional Service

Operations Research Society of America (ORSA), President 1979

The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS), President 1984-1985

Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS), President 1995

Selected Publications

Little J. D. C. (1955) Use of storage water in a hydroelectric system. Operations Research, 3(2): 187-197.

Little J. D. C. (1961) A proof for the queueing formula: L=λW. Operations Research, 9(3): 383-401.

Little J. D. C. (1966) The synchronization of traffic signals by mixed-integer linear programming. Operations Research, 14(4): 568-594.

Little J. D. C. & Lodish L. M. (1969) A media planning calculus. Operations Research, 17(1): 1-35.

Little J. D. C. (1970) Managers and models: the concept of a decision calculus. Management Science, 16(8): B466-485.

Little J. D. (1979) Aggregate advertising models: The state of the art. Operations research, 27(4): 629-667.

Little J. D., Gartner N. H., Kelson M. D., & Little J. D. C.  (1981) MAXBAND: A program for setting signals on arteries and triangular networks. Transportation Research Record, 795.

Blattberg R. C., Glazer R., & Little J. D., eds. (1994) The Marketing Information Revolution. Harvard Business School Press: Cambridge, MA. 

Additional Resources

Johh Little (2011) Interview by John Furrier on Little Law and Big Data. Video. Extraction Points, California. (See Videos Below)

John Little (2012) Interview by Zhang Kaifu. Video. Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. (See Video Below)