There’s more to a long line than a boring wait. Queue up a competitive advantage

Brendan Richards, Partner, National Sector Leader, Transport & Logistics

The bane of modern living is the inordinate amount of time we all spend waiting in queues. Whether it be at sporting events, nightclubs, getting around the city, buying a coffee or getting a meal, chances are you are going to have to stand around in a queue first. Queues are endemic — so much so that we don’t always recognise one when we see it.

We tend to associate queues with people. If we spot a line of people, we see a queue. But a logistics mindset sees queues everywhere. A production line is a queue. An ATM is a queue. Anything that involves a line of moving parts where other elements are introduced or exited from that line is, in fact, a queue. And once you realise your business is full of the same annoying queues that you encounter everyday as a person, with the same potential for frustration and inefficiency, then it makes sense to spend some time trying to eliminate those queues or at least make them faster.

Enter the mathematical gods and the idea of ‘queuing theory’.

Queuing theory is the brainchild of a bloke by the name of Agner Krarup Erlang. He came up with it while trying to create models to describe the Copenhagen telephone exchange way back in 1909. It is basically the mathematical study of lines that predicts queue lengths and waiting times, and it deals with the problems queues involve such as congestion and delays. What that involves is examining every component of waiting in line including the arrival process, service process, number of servers, number of system places and the number of customers which could be anything from people to cars to data packets. The real life applications of queuing theory cover everything from faster service, to traffic flow to shipping orders to designing telecommunications, to data centres.

Here in Australia, the most high-profile recent example is the MCG. The jewel in Melbourne’s crown is about to become the first venue in the southern hemisphere to put in place “WaitTime” technology to tell fans how long the lines are for the beer. Dedicated TV screens will tell you where the shortest line is, how to get there and how long it will take to get a beer. An app means you can do all of that from your phone before you even leave your seat and artificial intelligence, sensors and algorithms will update all of that information every few seconds. Why are they doing it? Because the average time people are prepared to wait for customer service is 6 minutes and 46 seconds. If you can improve that, you get more customers and have a better chance of keeping the ones you have. Getting queues right is a competitive advantage.

By applying queuing theory your business can develop more efficient queuing systems, staffing, pricing, processes, and arrival management. You can reduce wait times and increase the number of customers you serve. Now, if you bear in mind that a ‘customer’ is not necessarily a person but rather anything that is the beneficiary of a fast moving queue, then almost any business can benefit from looking at what they do from a queuing perspective.

In 2003, for example, a group of academics from Stanford University used queuing theory to analyse the potential effects of a bioterrorism attack and come up with a system to get medication to people faster and limit the number of deaths. If it can be used for something as unlikely as bioterrorism, then surely it has a use for your warehouse, transport operation or data transmissions.

If you want to learn more, you can check out Queuing Systems – the scientific journal that covers queuing theory, or google the various free queuing calculators that can get you started on your queuing model, or simply get in touch and we’ll talk about how applying a logistics mindset could transform your business.

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