Sunday, February 10, 2008

Queuing efficiency

OK. It's time for a little venting about something everyone deals with and no one likes: lines, or queues, for you folks across the pond.

A line is a sign of inefficiency that occurs when the rate of demand for a resource exceeds the rate of supply. As an engineering student who is also interested in economics, I look at lines from a practical point of view. I'm always trying to find ways to shorten or eliminate lines, or at least reduce the amount of time that I spend in them.

I often find myself silently wishing that someone would fix the problems with lines so that I wouldn't have to spend so much time standing around. But how do you fix a social problem as big as line behavior? Maybe I should work on getting it introduced as part of the national first grade curriculum. I could probably save the country $500 billion in productivity losses over the next 20 years. Maybe they'd put my face on a postage stamp—one that you would no longer have to stand in line at the post office to buy.

Failing that, I guess I could just blog about the situation instead.

Here goes.
  • What's the deal with buffets? They seem to be a magnet for questionable queue practices. For example, why does it seem that most buffet lines go down just one side of the table? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that if the line goes down both sides, it will go twice as fast.
  • Also, who puts the napkins, forks, and cups at the beginning of the buffet line? That plugs up the beginning of the line, and it also slows down the rest of the line because you have to juggle all your utensils while you're trying to dish up your food. Put the accessories at the end, folks!
  • What's with the social stigma against cutting in a buffet line? You know how lots of times everyone is backed up at the liver (or whatever), and there's a giant gap after that at the rolls, and cookies, and baked beans, etc.? If I skip up ahead to the rolls, it doesn't slow anyone else down, but I feel like everyone will think I'm a bad person if I do. That doesn't stop me, though. (Really, a buffet swarm would be more efficient than a buffet line, but it doesn't preserve the first-in-first-out property.)
  • Change of venue: the sidewalk. BYU's hallways and sidewalks get pretty plugged up during class breaks. I hate it when I'm walking down a crowded sidewalk and someone just stops in front of me. If they looked around, they would realize that they had disrupted the vast current of students flowing behind them, slowing down hundreds of people. Next time you need to send a text message, be a little more aware of your surroundings and step off the sidewalk first.
  • For that matter, if you feel the need to talk to five of your best friends, don't do it right in the middle of a really busy sidewalk. There are better places.
  • Back to the buffet: you don't actually have to stand in line—at least not for very long. Most people go get in line right when the event starts, and many of those people have to wait quite a while to get to the front. Why not just wait in your seat where you can have a good conversation with your friends, and go get in line when it dies down? It's a lot more pleasant that way.
  • Have you ever been in a class where a bunch of signup sheets (or assignments to be returned, or whatever) have been passed around? If the pile is big enough, it snakes through the first two or three rows, but it doesn't makes it to everyone before class is over. There's a solution to the problem, inspired by a principle from computer processor design: pipelining. Instead of sending everything around in one giant pile, break it up into several smaller piles and send them around one after the other. The total amount of time that any one person spends going through everything will be the same (after all, there are still the same number of things to go through), but since the piles are smaller, they will move between people faster, and thus hopefully make it to everyone by the end of class.
Thanks for indulging me. Watch for this information coming to a first grade classroom near you.


Anonymous said...

I'll work on teaching it to my second grade class...

Gabe said...

Bruce... don't ever try to buy anything at the HFAC. They have, without reservation, the worst setup possible. That line moves slower than any other line I have seen. Perhaps it is the very lax manner in which the attendant handles the whole transaction (after all, it doesn't matter to them how long the line is, they are working the whole shift), or maybe it is the fact they insist on verifying your address, phone number, birth date, social security number, and mother's maiden name (okay, maybe just address and phone, but still!). I'm getting riled up just thinking about it. I had to stand in it last week to get tickets that I subsequently lost with my wallet. Perhaps that was the bitter irony... I lost them...

Jonathan said...