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Don't knock our queues

Photo courtesy of Eva Amsen
I was somewhat bemused by a thought piece by James O'Malley suggesting that we've got it all wrong with our pride in Britain's ability to put on a good queue, as exemplified by the queue for the late Queen's lying in state.

O'Malley tells us 'It’s also a completely bonkers, wrong-headed way to think about Britain. When we see a queue, we should feel embarrassed.' The reason for this, he suggests, is that a queue means that we aren't being dealt with efficiently - our precious time is being wasted. He goes on to say 'when we see a queue we should want to celebrate it - we should want to eliminate it.'

As someone who worked in Operational Research, and who has done quite a lot of work with queuing theory, I would respectfully suggest that he is wrong. Not in the suggestion that we should want to minimise queuing - of course no one wants to waste their time. But outside of a fantasy world we have to consider the reality that lay behind Macmillan's response to being ask what the greatest challenges faced by statesmen were: 'Events, dear boy, events.'

There were always be circumstances where resources are limited compared to demand - and in such circumstances, the queue in its multiple guises is often the fairest way to deal with the situation. The British pride in its queue forming is not in the need for the queue, but rather dealing with circumstances where there is that resource/demand imbalance in a good tempered and orderly way.

It's absolutely true that we should engineer queues out of existence if possible. I recently sang the praises of Marks and Spencer's new system where I can scan things, put them straight into my shopping bag and pay on my phone as I walk towards the door without ever going near a till. That's a queue successfully deleted. But you can't always do that engineering. In some circumstances this is because it takes time to engineer solutions and we may need the queue now. In others, the cost of the resources to remove the queue is greater than the cost of the queuing time. 

That's not to say that O'Malley is wrong in saying that virtual queues such as booking systems have a lot of value - but it's naive to suggest that one could have been set up for the scale and nature of queue required in the Queen's lying in state. O'Malley suggests we could have modified the Covid jab booking system. But this would have involved attempting to apply a massively multiple queue, multiple server system to a single queue, dual server physical reality. The only way a booking system would have significantly changed things is if it was used to drastically reduce the number of people who could attend, which isn't really helping.

So, accepting there are circumstances where queues are needed, I think it's perfectly acceptable to be proud of a culture where, when they are required, they form naturally and easily, rather than in some countries, where any pretence of queuing rapidly collapses into a free-for-all. I was particularly impressed a few years ago when I went to a row of three cashpoints with a good few people waiting. I'm not sure how O'Malley would envisage dealing with this kind of queue. Putting at least ten cashpoints in each location, most of which would spend all their time idle? Making people book ahead to withdraw cash? But the queuers were a beautiful sight to see. Instead of forming separate queues behind each cashpoint, with no guidance they formed a single queue, multiple server formation, providing the fairest division of waiting time. I was truly proud of them.


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