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MIT Better World

John Little is an inventor of marketing science, a field he helped to create in the last half of the 20th century.


By Liz Karagianis

When a new idea comes along, I get excited. I want to get into it,” says John Little, who, rather than grasping new ideas, actually has the ability to invent the new ideas in the first place.

Little, who has led a distinguished career spanning five decades, is an inventor of marketing science, a field he helped to create in the last half of the 20th century. He devised many of the basic rules. Years before the Internet burst on the scene, he introduced and implemented the idea of an online marketing model, whereby a manager could personally ask “what would happen if” questions to assist in making marketing decisions.

His research in marketing is an extension of his work in operations research, where he began. There, he is best known for his proof of the formula L=λW, known as Little’s Law. When you stand in queue at a bank, ATM machine, or supermarket, this law governs what happens, on average. The law tells you that the average time you wait in queue is equal to the average number of people in line times the average time between arriving people. It’s not only useful for airline counters and amusement parks but also for manufacturing and industrial facilities, and in computer design.

Little was involved in the early days of scanner data, the bar codes on packages in a supermarket. In a 1983 paper, he showed how future purchasing behavior could be predicted based on past buying patterns and supermarket actions, like prices, advertising, and end-aisle displays. He says he is now a struggling novice on the fringe of e-commerce and marketing automation.

Little, who has launched two companies and won numerous awards, enjoys working at MIT so much, he says, he does in fact work much of the time. “I tend to overdo it.” He adds: “I am a dreamer with a New England conscience. It’s great to have ideas and visions of what might be, but come Monday morning, you better figure out how to make them happen.”