The Persistent Queue
Posted Friday, November 9th, 2007
The animal kingdom very rarely queues for anything, but in the human race, the queue is alive and well. It's part of our culture. To buy tickets on the day of play at Wimbledon, the fans queue all night. Even when people have tickets, they're still happy to join a queue, as they do to ensure a good place to stand in the hall at the Last Night of the Proms. Queueing overnight in makeshift tents is part of the fun, and the resulting cameraderie adds to the atmosphere.
It's hard to see how some of the less pleasant types of queue can be avoided. When a bank is about to go bust, it's inevitable that queues are going to form in the street outside its doors as people join the rush to get their money out. When a planeload of food aid suddenly arrives at a refugee camp, it's probably impossible to serve everyone at once. Some types of queue are avoidable however. They exist only because organisations like to make you wait.
By 'avoidable' I don't mean 'try elsewhere', but has no reason to exist. A typical example can be witnessed in the waiting rooms of many UK public hospital casualty departments, known nowadays as A & E or Accident & Emergency. For as long as I can remember (decades) and despite the billions of extra cash pumped into the NHS by successive governments, the waiting time at my local casualty department, run by The Bolton Hospitals NHS Trust, is often 3 to 5 hours.
The issue here is not the quality of medical care, which may or may not be second to none, but the institutional acceptance that time has no meaning. 'Insufficient resources' is the usual riposte, but that doesn't seem to be a problem for the casualty department at nearby Chorley & South Ribble District General Hospital, run by Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. At Chorley the typical wait is a fraction of the time at Bolton, sometimes a few minutes only.
"Your call is important to us" is the insult you get when you phone an insurance company, knowing that what they actually mean is "our statistics show that we can afford to keep you waiting uselessly for a certain number of minutes because you're stupid enough to hang on." The longer you wait, the more of your own time you've invested in the hope that someone will answer very soon, so you persist, until after maybe 20 minutes or an hour you slam the phone down (then repeat the exercise a bit later). The fact is, they like to have people waiting.
A lifetime of queueing
Let's assume queueing age begins at fifteen. If you spend only fifteen minutes per day waiting in one form of queue or another, during sixty years you'll have wasted 5,475 hours of your life. That equates to 228 days of someone grabbing your arm and temporarily restraining you from doing what you wanted or needed to do. It's actually more days than that, because you can't usually sleep while you're queueing (unless it's Wimbledon or the Proms) but you do need to sleep during a 24 hour day.
This time wastage can be reduced by adopting the same "up yours" attitude and either going elsewhere or foregoing the thing itself. If that isn't possible, having a good long book handy at all times at least gives you an opportunity to do something you perhaps wouldn't otherwise have found the time for. My current choice is Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy. I'm enjoying this excellent novel thanks only to the people who make me queue.
Which brings me to the Liverpool Passport Office, one of seven UK regional passport offices run by the Home Office Identity & Passport Service. Although you have to wait for an appointment, and it takes them over four hours to process your passport application on the day, they don't make you queue. Instead, you can spend a pleasant half-day sightseeing in one of the country's great cities. This is because after your appointment (their strict quota system means they always see you on time) you're free to leave the office until you collect your passport four hours later (your passport is always ready).
A simple queueing theory
My theory that some organisations positively like to make you queue - that they want people waiting - is supported by a simple observation. There are four banks with branch offices in the small town where I live, and they can all be guaranteed to have a queue of people waiting to be served. Sometimes it's short, with only two or three waiting, and at other times there may be seven or eight, but there is always a queue. You can never walk in and get served straight away.
They adjust the number of tellers to make sure none of them have to be the waiters. They don't ever want their tellers to be waiting for a customer to walk in. They prefer the customers there, standing in the bank, like a continuous resource. Otherwise they would bring in extra tellers to clear the queue, then adjust back, so there would be times with no queue at all, and other times with a queue of five or six (instead of seven or eight).
So this is the theory: that organisations could clear the queue on a one-time basis for their customers' eternal benefit, but they won't do it because it's their policy to make us wait at their convenience. Public hospitals and insurance companies apply this policy on a grand scale.
We're running late
This is the feeble excuse at the surgery when you're made to wait half an hour after the time of your appointment before you see the doctor or dentist. It's so feeble because it's the same every visit - they're always running late. It doesn't make sense. Over the course of a whole day, they eventually see all the patients who had an appointment. The surgery just finishes later. Why don't they extend the day in the first place, and see everyone on time? That way, no-one would have half an hour stolen from their lives by the inefficiency of the system.
My dentist, David Hughes BDS (Bolton, UK), never runs late. His waiting room, always empty, is redundant. Mr Hughes takes professional pride in knowing his patients and making an accurate assessment of the time required for effective treatment, then instilling a 'no time wasting' ethos amongst the administrative staff at the surgery. There's no need for a knowledge of queueing theory - just good management, and respect for one's own and other people's time.