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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Queueing is Not Rocket Science, But Formulae and Theories Abound

Queueing is Not Rocket Science, But Formulae and Theories Abound

More Cars Mean More Roads Mean More Cars - Shyaulis Andrjus
As patience gets shorter, life busier, queues longer, first-come-first-served may be reduced to a formula or theory. But what of human behaviour?

Science and technologyworking with the arts makes sense; even mathematics and the arts, is not totally unlikely. But it seems there are maths/scientific formulae or theories for everything, even the phenomenon of queueing. Queueing is not as strong as ‘waiting’, but is a recognised phenomenon.

Comedian George Mikes said, ‘An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.’ No longer, though, are the Brits/English the world’s best at queueing. The habit, often met with bemusement by nationalities with no concept of standing in line, evolved during World War 2 through food rationing. It became a hallmark of British civility: wait in orderly fashion in shops, bus stops, offices.

An August 2010 survey by European branch of Mystery Shopping Providers Association put researchers into 2000 different queues in 24 countries, and it was found that, on average, it took over 10 minutes to reach the front of the line, twice the amount of time that it took in 2008.

Post Offices (19 minutes) and banks (18 minutes) were worse. Clothes shops and bus stations had average waits of under four minutes. Sweden topped the poll with two minutes average. This poll followed Barclaycard’s which found 40% refusing to queue more than 2 minutes (down from 50% refusing 5 minutes in 2004), while 51% will not enter a shop if they see a queue.

Queueing is Inevitable

Disaster victims queuing for water and food is an all-too frequent sight, as cultural habits give way to necessity, and could worsen in future. In some cultures, queueing is as ingrained as it was in the UK. Russia averaged longest/slowest queues. The Bulgarian passport office had the longest waits in 2010: six hours to deal with 36 people.

This is not new. Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial (1925), had a scene where Joseph K accused of an undisclosed crime encountered people who waited, literally, years without hope, meaninglessly in a court.

The internet with more online shopping, banking, booking of events/holidays, means patience with physically queuing is evaporating. However, queues remain everywhere. Some shops respond by shifting checkout positions. Unmanned tills or queues blocking shopping aisles cause supermarket rage, fueled by unsteerable trolleys.

Disneyland and other theme parks have theorized that queues are disguised with twists and turns, corners and alleys, so nobody sees the end nor estimates their wait. Tickets sold to jump queues neither solve the problem nor enhance customer satisfaction.

Mathematics and Theory of Queueing

There is mathematical theory enabling analysis of related queue processes, like arriving at rear, waiting in middle and reaching service at the front. It’s applied to storage and manufacturing processes, telecommunications and retail/service industries and designs of their outlets.

Algorithms are drawn up to aid design. The relationship between congestion and delay is analysed to understand problems. The weight of numbers at supermarkets, airport check-ins, overloaded communication systems and human error/fatigue/failure to understand, all play their part in the problem. Creating solutions is practical matter, rather than theoretical.

As population grows, expectations rise, more of everything is needed/demanded. More check out staff, phone operators, retail servers, roads, buses and planes would, in theory, solve everything.

Traffic Jams

One cause of road halt is explained as one motorist carelessly changing lanes and setting up a chain reaction down lines of vehicles, all suddenly braking to avoid collisions, leading to stand-still. This is The Chaos and Non Linear Dynamics Theory, similar to The Domino Effect or Butterfly Theory, which argue that a small disturbance in one place causes an amplifying chain effect. All well and good, but theory doesn’t prevent ‘phantom jams’.

Another theory is that more roads, wider roads ease congestion. In the UK, a privately-owned toll road was built to bypass the M6‘s worst traffic holdups. However, it’s used little, through widespread resistance to the toll. Even traffic that does use it has not reduced M6 volume.

Patrick Thornton is a social media researcher, community and social media manager for RarePlanet. In his blog Endemic, he articulated (June 2010) an opposite view that building more roads to alleviate congestion only causes more congestion.

Thornton reports that the beltway around Washington DC is being made 8 lanes each side; while in Maryland, a light rail line is to mirror their beltway. His mantra is: ‘Car use begets more car use, which causes more congestion, more pollution, more road rage and less happy people’.

Movies like the Great American Traffic Jam (1980) and Falling Down (1993) among others cash in on how traffic and gridlock are part of daily life. This is The Hollywood Formula: people will queue to pay to see disaster, death, torture, and aliens, often with human frailties.

The problem is reflected to some extent in the skies. Queues of planes on takeoff runways are commonplace; all aircraft approaching airports cannot land at once. A holding pattern keeps planes moving within designated airspace. It’s a sky-born queue, in the layout of a racetrack, taking about 4 minutes to complete, with planes landing, one at a time from the bottom of the stack.

Call Center Queues

People chafe at being held in a phone queue to call centers. Automated responses, such as ‘Your call is important to us” (when it clearly isn’t) and ‘We’re experiencing extremely heavy call levels at this time’ (when are there not heavy call levels?) don’t mitigate frustration. Neither does music nor queue numbering.

Brad Cleveland, Call Center Magazine said that predictions of queue behaviour use a formula that takes random arrival into account. He said: ‘Running scenarios with a staffing calculator (simple software program) is a great way to learn about queue behavior and resource tradeoffs’. The variables he identified are: average talk time in seconds, number of calls per 30 minutes and service level objectives.

It’s formula/theory. It’s mathematics again. Human behaviour-by-numbers; experts pontificate. However, humanity is unpredictable, impatient, hungry, angry, frustrated and stubborn. When boffins get a perfect formula for dealing with those, the robots will have taken over.

First published on Suite 101, 11 September 2010.

Photo: More Cars Mean More Roads Mean More Cars – Shyaulis Andrjus

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