The fascinating world of queues

HRH Prince Charles is the longest serving heir apparent in British history. This is perhaps the most prestigious queue on the world. We may not be in line to a throne anytime soon, but are certainly not lacking for experience when it comes to queues. Queues are ubiquitous. There is a whole world of queues out there. In fact, we are prepared for queues from an early age and taught the good manner of standing in line and waiting our turn.

Queues are a means to an end. The general premise is that a constrained or coveted service/resource is provided to people in a some order. From my observations as a customer, queues are of 3 types: standard, personalized and invisible.

Standard (Visible) Queues

This is our stereotypical queue. There is a line that is visible to all those queuing. We have a position in the line relative to others. The line is processed sequentially. Standard queues can come in different varieties. The contextual example of an overseas holiday trip will illustrate.

  • Holding: short transient queue where people come and go within a short space of time e.g. taxi drop-off zones.
  • Vending/Disposal: queues where we send or receive something e.g. boarding pass printing kiosks, baggage check-in etc. This category is probably the broadest and includes common queues like those at supermarkets, ATMs etc.
  • Verification: such queues have a choke point through which only verified people can pass. Customs screening is the classic example.
  • Entry: queues that govern entry. The aircraft boarding queue is the classic example. Apart from usual purposes of verification and control, entry queues comprise an important part of the customer experience. When we queue to enter an aircraft, the signage, uniforms, air-bridge, greeting by crew etc. all contribute to our experience of entering the aircraft and commencing a journey.
  • Rationed: The best example is Traffic. It is a batch-processed queue. A whole batch of cars, who are stopped at a red light are allowed to go at the subsequent green light. We can safely assume that this is one queue that everyone hates.

Standard queues can also include some very desirable options. The best example comes from the top — royalty. The line to the throne is a fascinating queue where the participants are pre-qualified by birth, publically known and aligned in a way that represents their claim to the throne. Another salient feature is that the processing time can immensely — from a few days to several decades!

Personalized (Semi-Visible) Queues

In this type of queue, we know our absolute position but not our relative position within a queue. Unlike standard queues, we don’t experience the entire queue and instead respond to some sort of personalized identifier. A related variety are queues formed or prioritized according to some criteria which become available (visible) accordingly.

  • Token-based: Visa offices are the stereotypical example. We are usually given a ticket number and when that flashes on the screen, we can get precious time with an officer who can process our enquiry. Token-based queue systems are now common across many organizations.
  • Criteria based: This includes special airport channels for diplomats, dignitaries, private aircraft, First Class boarding etc. Priority queues allow a category of people to be treated in accordance with their stature — political, financial, security etc. Triage (hospitals) and quarantine processing at airports (red/green channels) are popular examples where queues are routed based on certain criteria. Like entry queues, prioritized lanes are also instrumental towards delivering good customer experience. ‘Express lanes’ at supermarkets are the classic example — they allow people buying few items to complete their purchases quickly.

Invisible Queues

Invisible queues are intriguing. We typically don’t see them at all, but once we know about them, we cannot “un-see” them. For those familiar with the Johari Window, this corresponds very roughly to the Blind Spot — known to others but not known to self. Two examples come to mind:

  • Internet: Why not start directly with the biggest queue in the world— the Internet. As I write this post through an online editor, a host of internetworking protocols and hardware devices are busy assembling, queuing, routing and re-assembling data packets and making the whole process seem instantaneous!
  • Applications / Orders: When we submit an application or order form we become part of the supplying organization’s workflow and part of a queue that is invisible to us, except for usually the end result. To facilitate good customer service, we are often provided reference numbers through which we can track progress.

Customer experience of queues

Queues are a means to an end. If these ends can be achieved through other means, then the nature and rationale for having queues changes.

Through good business process design and effective use of technology, queues can be reduced, made less onerous and indeed even be eliminated all together. Looking back at the queues I’ve being a part of, I reflect on some recent experiences.

At hairdressers the process is typically to take a seat and wait for an available barber to signal. In some cases the queue order is obvious. At other times, we cannot be sure at which end the queue starts. One hairdresser changed this — for the better. Upon arrival, each customer is asked to write their name on the blackboard. A potentially ambiguous queue is now converted into the ordered and publicly visible list. No room for confusion. When a barber becomes available, they call the customer by name —much more personalized than a ‘next’ or a ‘nod’. Through creative process design, the experience of queuing was personalized. Far from being just a number in the queue, the customer was actually involved in the queue management process itself.

Recently, I wanted to get course information for a tertiary course. I went to the building that housed the University’s course advisors. They used a token based queue. I was asked to sign up (via text message) and given a number. A large screen showed the number that was currently being processed and estimated waiting time. But I did not have to wait idly for the entire duration. A reminder service was also available. It would text me close to the time. This meant that I could do other things and re-join the queue when my turn was about to come. A great example of technology being used to manage queues in a fast, flexible and customer centric manner.

The Venkateswara Temple gets up to 100,000 visitors — daily. Maybe more during peak season. To cope with such enormous scale, the specially designed Vaikuntham Queue Complex helps route queues of pilgrims through an elaborate series of rows and ‘holding rooms’ to ensure everyone can get a (brief) view of the main altar in an orderly fashion. The processing time can range between 12–24 hours, even longer during peak season. It is perhaps a benchmark process on how to handle queues at the largest possible scale. The experience of being in such an enormous queue is memorable in itself. Even more transformational is perspective — we are just one person in a daily queue of thousands and yearly queue of millions. I think this is where the ultimate contribution of queues lies. By making us realize that sometimes we are just a number, queues allow us to see the world more holistically and spiritually.

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