Designing Waits that Work

The MIT Sloan Management Review has an excerpt from Don Norman’s upcoming book on Sociable Design in its summer issue. Designing Waits that Work is a six page collection of anecdotes on queuing including examples from airlines, theme parks, coffeehouses, restaurants and the California DMV. It also briefly delves into the psychology of waiting.

Norman’s article doesn’t include the term “service design.” In fact, his lecture at the Institute of Design last year introduced the idea that service design is really just another name for “operations.” There’s a lot of overlap in that talk, so be sure to check it out if you’d rather not shell out for the SMR article.

Also, his free paper The Psychology of Waiting Lines [PDF 524k] was the basis for the SMR article and covers much of the same ground on queuing. It’s definitely worth reading.

Operations and service design aren’t interchangeable, but I do think that service designers would do well to familiarize themselves with the basics. Of course that’s easier said than done. I’ve browsed through some syllabi and online course documents on the topic and it’s full of equations like this analytical expression for the inventory at a warehouse:

Eppen and Schrage Analytic Expression

A more accessible entry point for the world of operations is the book The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. It shows up again and again on course reading lists so I decided to give it a shot earlier this year. The book is a primer on operations written in the form of a novel. The protagonist, Alex Rogo, works at a manufacturing plant that’s in danger of being closed. The arc of the story follows his efforts to deal with the crisis by uncovering principles that keep things running efficiently.

During the book he and his team develop a Theory of Constraints that includes five steps:

  1. Identify the system’s bottlenecks
  2. Decide how to exploit the bottlenecks
  3. Subordinate everything else to the above decision
  4. Elevate the system’s bottlenecks
  5. If, in a previous step, a bottleneck has formed, go back to step one. But do not allow inertia to become the cause of a system constraint.

Incidentally the goal to which the title refers is for a business to make money. Along the way the book introduces concepts like net profit, ROI, cash flow, throughput, operations expenses, inventory, dependent events and statistical fluctuations.

It’s an engaging story and a quick read. As a bonus there are about a dozen real world interviews in the appendix showing these principles in action at different organizations around the world. Much of the book deals with manufacturing but roughly half the case studies are pulled from the service sector including banks, hospitals and education.

[via Redjotter] Lauren beat me to the punch. She posted a nice overview of Norman’s SMR article last week that includes some quotes and a set of photos that illustrate the topic.

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