Waiting in lines

It would be a very useful study indeed to research the amount of time the average person in Guyana spends standing in line to access goods and services. We believe that the number of man hours lost by persons patiently, and impatiently, enduring the slow trudge to the head of the line would be staggering.

In the USA, where studies are actually done, a survey by watchmakers Timex Group found that the average American spends an average of 20 minutes a day waiting for the bus or train, 32 minutes whenever they visit a doctor, 28 minutes in security lines whenever they travel, 21 minutes for a significant other to get ready to go out, 13 hours annually waiting on hold for a customer service, 38 hours each year waiting in traffic, while those living in big cities wait in traffic more than 50 hours annually. Overall, this amounts to a whopping 37 billion hours each year spent by Americans waiting somewhere for some good or service. The USA has a population of over 325 million.

Considering that by comparison to the USA, Guyana’s systems of service delivery might be considered, in many cases, archaic, substandard, haphazard and any of a number of equally unflattering adjectives, one might wonder how our own population of less than one million might fare in a proportioned match up.

Guyanese are quite familiar with the queue. Lining up has, over the years, become a literal way of life in Guyana. Everyone who has ever paid a utility or similar monthly bill is used to living a portion of their life in a slow-moving line usually in an enclosed building, and often without publicly available restroom facilities. From government agencies to private businesses to the banks, the often interminable wait for service consumes the available daylight hours and stymies progress individually and collectively as a country. Indeed, our ever evolving vernacular has come up with the appropriate word for someone who is able to negotiate their way through the system and get their transactions done without ever having to join the queue: we say that person has “lines.”

But we are not ignoring the fact that the business and banking sectors have made interventions over the years aimed at reducing the waiting time for service, whether it is standing in an actual line on the business or banking premises, or in a virtual line awaiting delivery of service or product. There have been efforts to get customers to do transactions electronically as in debit cards and point of sale products, but these have not enjoyed the kind of widespread usage required to halt the dependency on cash by John Public for doing transactions.

But is the public to be blamed for the low utilisation and sometimes complete rejection of services and products that are supposed to make transactions and queries simpler and faster, or is it the entities themselves at fault? A good test of whether you have a user-friendly product or service is the demand for it among your own staff. If ever a business has to demand or coerce its own employees to use a product or service designed to reduce transaction time and increase safety and efficiency, then that is probably a good indicator that it will be rejected by the public as well.

Many times, innovative services and products are implemented in a piecemeal fashion or without an enabling environment or without there being sufficient applications for its use to make the adoption of it practical for most users. This means that the real work to create a climate of acceptance must be done on a business to business level. It is apposite to note that innovations and new services requiring business to business collaboration seem to be met with as much reticence from business owners and managers as by the general public.

The inability by business owners to see the value to their business of such collaborations, together with the slow acceptance by the public have slowed the pace of progress and kept Guyana a firmly cash-based society with a heavy reliance on face-to-face interaction to carry out transactions and inquiries. The result of this is the painfully repetitive necessity of queuing up to carry out the simplest to the most complex of transactions. Poor supervision and/or lack of customer service training or its implementation by employees make the process of doing transactions and queries in this manner mutually frustrating to both customers and employees.

However, the biggest tragedy in all this is the lack of quantification of the financial loss that this process of wasting time standing in lines for sometimes hours, to do a transaction that takes all of five minutes or less to complete. Because of the slow turnaround time per transaction businesses and government entities are limiting the amount of business they can do on a given day. They are also contributing to the default of their customers who may repeatedly put off investing hours of their day shuffling in a queue to pay their bills to their own detriment and the reduced cash flow of the particular entity.

Employees who try to use their lunch period to hurriedly do a transaction might find themselves trapped in a slow-moving line, becoming unproductive by absence at their own place of work, possible creating or exacerbating a queue there themselves.

Guyana is without doubt wasting thousands of people hours every day, across the country, as poor systems, lack of customer service awareness, and lack of consequences continue to give life to the interminable lines.

This is a problem which has a financial price tag on it, but since those in authority with the ability to make the necessary changes probably have “lines,” a solution might not be too soon coming.

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