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The World's Great Equalizer: The DMV

Yesterday morning I had to go into the DMV (Department of Licensing here in Washington State) to renew my driver’s license. As I walked into the waiting room and saw the hundred and fifty or two hundred poor souls already lost in purgatory ahead of me, it reminded me of something that had happened years before.

Back when I worked for Genie Industries, I had to renew my license. As I was sitting in the waiting room, who should walk in, but the company’s owner. There I was, a brand new employee, sitting a few chairs down from the big boss. The DMV doesn’t play favorites.

But maybe it should. More on that later…

It dawned on me as I sat and counted that there were close to 20 of us in line for each and every window that was open. Seems like an awfully gross disregard for the value of the time of the taxpayers of the state of Washington. Each minute that ticked by cost over three hours of productivity for the crowd. In the hour and change that I waited from start to finish, I only talked to employees for about 3 minutes of value added work. So, in the time I was there, let’s say there was two hundred hours of lost productivity. In the eight plus hours that the office was opened, that amounts to about 1600 hours of lost time.

Now, I have no way of knowing if the hour I was there was representative of the typical wait, but I will say that there were still a lot of empty chairs. The branch was less than half full. That tells me that I may actually be being a bit generous in my guestimates. The chairs would not be there if they were not needed, at least some of the time.

So, let’s do the math. If the office is opened 6 days a week, with a few holidays, there is little under half a million hours of people’s butts in chairs per year in that branch. That’s the equivalent of having a staff of 230 people sitting in those chairs for a year. Doing nothing.

And what’s really amazing is that those numbers are for just one branch of the DMV. If I counted correctly, there are 58 offices in Washington State. Now I don’t know how big or busy they are compared to the location I was in. But if they were anywhere close, that could mean that somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 people worth of productivity is being involuntarily squandered. In one state. Remember, there are 50 in the US. I shudder to think that at any given point in time somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million people are sitting in DMV offices scattered throughout the country. For reference, McDonald’s employed 385,000 people in 2011. Imagine if every one of their employees from around the world spent their entire shift for a year sitting in a chair in the restaurant doing nothing. Add in a hundred thousand of their closest friends, and that’s still less waste than the we could potentially be talking about at the DMV.

Now, the median household income in the US is about $50K, but not every household has two people employed, and some have driving aged kids. Let’s say $30K for the average wage of a person sitting in those seats. At that salary, the time spent sitting in those seats would cost the US…$15 BILLION PER YEAR!

In truth, I suspect that my logic is based on some faulty assumptions that come from using a sample size of one. The office I was in could have been big, or poorly run. Some of the thousands of offices might be rather empty, and I might have been there at a busy time. Plus, my salary numbers are just ‘thumb in the air’ guesses, and not everyone is actually employed. But even if I am off by a factor of ten, that is still a billion and a half bucks worth of time squandered annually. So it might just be all the US based day shift employees of McDonald’s sitting down for a year. The point is that even if I am way off, we are still talking about massive waste. Unfortunately, I don’t think I am off by that much, so the number is likely significantly north of that.

The first thought that came to mind when I was there was that the DMV could learn a lot from Disney. At the theme parks, you can sign up for a ‘Fastpass’ that takes you to the front of a line at a designated time slot. Imagine if the DMV had a system like that.

  1. Go to the website.
  2. Get a time. (Obviously, the slots would be limited to match capacity.)
  3. Show up at that time.
  4. Go to the front of the line.
  5. Get your 3 minutes of value added work.
  6. Go home.

I can’t imagine that there would be much programming needed for that. But even it was a significant project, the cost would have to come in cheaper than the $15 billion alternative. But the investment would only be made if the DMV actually respected their customers’ time. That’s really the point I am making with this article, in a rather lengthy fashion. In the real, non-governmental world, this situation doesn’t exist. People vote with their feet and leave. But, when there is only one government mandated show in town, you don’t have a choice.

I will say one thing here, though. I always feel for employees who are put in that position by their bosses. I only have to be around that angry throng once every five years. The employees have to, through not fault of their own, spend a couple thousand hours a year listening to people like me vent and stew and complain. It has to tear down a person’s spirit.

Let’s finish with one more little rant, while I am on the subject of the DMV. If you choose to hand out numbers, please consider the emotional impact of giving a person a number with 715 or 910 on it.

Now serving E107…

The fact that a number that large is needed doesn’t give one much confidence that there is a chance of being out the door any time soon.

 

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