A Few Lines About Lines

queue jeffrey palladini
According to an MIT professor, we spend 2-3 years of our life waiting in lines: in stores, at the doctor’s, at the bank, at the airport, for public transport, for government services and so on. And that doesn’t include the time we spend waiting in lines in our cars (in traffic jams and red lights) or on the phone (“you are number… 58 in the queue…your call is important to us…”)

It is unnatural to wait in lines. That’s why in some countries, people just push ahead and refuse to stay in order. It’s also why people will pay money to jump the queue.

A queue created by a vendor, in person or on the phone, is the vendor’s way of telling you that they believe their time is more important and valuable than yours. A doctor who overbooks and then makes you wait an hour after your scheduled appointment is sending the same message. A lineup for a social event (with bouncers ready if you misbehave) is a power trip for those who deliberately create it. Unfortunately, oligopolies can afford to treat customers this way, because they are all in cahoots to offer the same lousy, rude service to cut their costs.

Government queues, including traffic jams caused by inadequate road systems, are an attempt to be frugal with taxpayers’ money, and sometimes also a deliberate barrier designed to discourage certain behaviours (e.g. driving cars) and encourage others (e.g. public transit).

Lines for service by large organizations, both public and private, are further exacerbated by bureaucracy. Small is beautiful and size creates the inevitability of queues to counter the inherent inefficiency of large organizations. Scale may reduce their cost, but it inevitably increases the customer’s waiting time.

Queues are also a reflection of imaginative failure, because in most cases they are unnecessary:

  • Technologies should be able to predict and schedule staff to avoid line-ups, to advise people in advance, 24/7 from anywhere, when and where they will face delays and appropriate workarounds for them, and, when delays are unavoidable, to schedule alternative times when there will be little or no delay.
  • Processes should be redesigned to eliminate waits, which almost always cost more than the cost of improving the process.
  • Facilities should be made available so that people who must wait in a line can do other productive tasks (work or recreational) while they wait.

Such imaginative failure costs our economy billions, frequently leads to violence or accidents, and causes unnecessary stress and ultimately human illness. So why do we put up with it? Because in this world of supposedly limitless choice, there really is no choice at all. You can wait in line A or line B. And if you have a problem with that, line C starts around the corner. Don’t get angry. Don’t tell us how to do ourjob better. Just stay in line.

Painting: Queue by Jeffrey Palladini

Category: Human Nature
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5 Responses to A Few Lines About Lines

  1. Bharat says:

    Hi Dave, Iam a little surprised this essay come from you. This is the typical western/industrial mindset that every moment of our lives should be “productive” and “employ technologies to improve efficiency”. Efficiency in this case is of time. Productivity drive using technology is one of the core ideas of capitalism ! And you sure know that all these technologies add up to harm environment, right ?Why can’t we take that waiting time to practice some deep breathing and relax. I feel what our society needs is time to reflect upon things instead of rushing things around. My ask would be that waiting rooms be built with as much natural environments as possible — greenery, small water fountains etc, to help people relax.Regards

  2. Siona says:

    I think I’m on Bharat’s side with this. I posted my favorite lines from Kafka to a friend who’d written on this same topic recently.It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.This is what lines are for, but with others. And I like Bharat’s suggestion of foliage too. Breathing and plants go well together.

  3. Paula says:

    I agree with Dave. It is getting worse. At a large department store, I stood in line, while 4 clerks helped one person find one item. Why couldn’t one of four clerks have helped the next person in line? It was just rude. And our hospital would rather you stood in line twice for one test, once to schedule and once for the test, than have you sit comfortably at home on your phone.

  4. mattbg says:

    Technologies do exist (and are used) by some companies to manage their queue sizes. The issue is that these companies usually have an idea of what an acceptable queue length is (i.e. what will simply annoy a customer vs. what will make a customer go away) and keep the queues at these lengths to “optimize” their resources.I know for certain that call centers use such software, and even use the same software to ensure strict adherence to the online availability required of each employee. This software monitors and reports on the amount of time employees are available for calls, and schedules employees according to anticipated demand. One example is IEX TotalView ( http://www.iex.com/TotalView/overview.htm )

  5. Karen says:

    I’m in with Bharat and Siona. Sure, queues may be terrible, a waste of time and a humiliating experience. But I see it as an opportunity to cultivate patience, because we can’t always get what we want to need when we want it, and the people who give it to us have finite ability. I deliver a service at my job, and while it is non-essential, I have much greater respect for those who do provide services face to face rather than virtually. The plenitude of resources that would allow for employees to not have to be on and efficient for 4 hours straight does not always exist, and I personally would rather be on the side of forgiveness rather than chastising someone for doing their best with what they’ve got. We can lay the blame at the technology, but regardless of who we hold accountable for not getting what we want, I prefer to just have a strategy for dealing with not having it. (Notwithstanding, of course, problems in health service delivery – those are always tragedies.)

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