Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Science of Lines

The first time I became aware that there was a word “queue” was fifty years ago, in Hong Kong, where Mary and I were waiting in line for one of the redouble-decker buses unique to England and her colonies.  The thing that impressed me about the queue was how orderly it was.  There must have been more than a dozen people who came while we were there and those in front of us and behind us were equally nonchalant about their place in line, wandering around to browse or chat with others, returning to their original place and finally, boarding the bus in the order of their arrival.

I thought to myself, this would never happen in America.

Through subsequent years I have picked up a few facts about lines.  For instance, McDonalds was the first to have multiple lines for multiple stations, realizing early-on that turnover was the secret to profitability. Costco still uses that technique at their food counter.

Others took a different take on the process, using multiple service personnel but feeding them through one continuous line, thereby decreasing the frustration that comes when one chooses the slow line and watches while others coming later get their needs accomplished earlier.  There are variations on that and some companies offer exceptions, like the A-list at Southwest Airlines, or Pre-TSA boarding, or Business Banking, but in general the feeling is that you are getting taken care of as quickly as possible.

There are some waits where there may or may not be a line: waiting for an elevator, for instance.  An interesting observation on those is that some undergraduate psychology student discovered that when one is waiting with no one else in line, it lessens frustration if there is a mirror (you know you’ll check that out next time you are waiting for an elevator).

Speaking of elevators, I have noticed two changes in elevators, recently: some buildings direct you to a specific car, depending on what floor you are going to.  Press the floor and a sign directs you to the next elevator going to that floor. The second aspect of that is that you don’t have to press your destination floor a second time; the elevator remembers you.

Which always reminds me of a routine Woody Allen did on television almost fifty years ago.  He told of how he was so frustrated at his TV that he threw a lamp at the screen and smashed it.  The next day he was in Manhattan and took an elevator that had no operator, just a voice that said, “Floor, please.”

When he responded, the elevator began its ascent and after some time spoke again, “Are you the guy who threw a lamp at his TV last night?” As rapidly as technology is advancing these days, that scenario may not be unlikely.

My final thought on lines is that there seem to be more of them, as we fight for limited space or crush for entry into events that have a specific starting time.  Last night I waited in line for twenty minutes at a local library to hear an author, and the wait for sporting events or concerts can seem interminable. I’m reminded of a comment made by one Englishman in the queue for the double-decker bus.  He said, “You Americans must be fond of lines.  You have so many of them.”

He may have been right!

Next Post will take me back to music as I reflect on a Chamber Group that is celebrating an anniversary: The Kronos Quartet. Please join me.

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