Queue Quandaries

Customer-experience implications when lines get too long and hamper business

Most of the time, people don’t like waiting in lines. Whether stagnant at supermarket check-outs, halted at highway on-ramps during rush hour or—as thousands of U.S. air travelers recently experienced—stalled at airport security screening checkpoints, long lines are usually stressful and aggravating if you have places to go, people to meet and work to do.

Americans spend about 37 billion hours each year waiting in lines.1 Some spend the equivalent of a year or two of their lives waiting in lines, other research suggests.2

Is there anything that can be done to address this very real customer-experience issue, which can—to name a few concerns—damage an organization’s reputation, hurt individual and group productivity, and harm customer retention efforts?

For the airlines and airports dealing with a crush of travelers and a shortage of U.S. Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) workers, a slew of solutions have been suggested: waiving checked-bag fees so screeners don’t need to peruse as many carry-on items; lowering the enrollment cost for precheck programs to divert more travelers through these shorter lines; deploying more dogs to assist in screening; and getting airlines to help with work not directly related to security, such as moving bins to speed TSA checks of carry-on items.

For other organizations, however, most queue quandaries come down to reorganizing and instituting better line systems and structures, managing customer expectations, and understanding the science and psychology of lines and wait times.

Organization and structure

In the early 20th century, A.K. Erlang, a Danish engineer, developed the first mathematical models of how lines worked to help a phone company figure out how many phone lines and operators the central switchboard needed to keep customers from waiting too long. Erlang used probability and statistics to model how bottlenecks form as customers arrive, and how quickly companies needed to provide service to keep queues moving.3

In most settings where businesses serve large volumes of customers in person, much comes down to the type of line businesses organize to maintain order and move the service process forward: several parallel lines for customers to choose from or one long, serpentine line that everyone waits in.

The systems each have advantages and disadvantages. Multiple parallel lines require more employees to handle customers. Serpentine lines require more floor space where the line can form, meaning it doesn’t work in all business designs.4

Essentially, if both systems work efficiently, the mean wait time is about the same. However, Richard Larson, a professor who studies queuing theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and other queue researchers argue that the single, serpentine line has a more important advantage: It seems socially fairer because customers who arrive first are always served first.5

Managing customer expectations

Aside from line logistics, handling what goes on inside the minds of waiting customers can have a huge impact on how the customers perceive wait times and react to what’s happening—or not happening.

Enter $52 billion entertainment giant Walt Disney Corp., which operates eight theme parks around the world that attract millions of visitors each year. Disney knows how to handle crowds and has designed queues that are entertaining and create anticipation for rides—keeping most people from constantly checking the clock.

"In my book, they’re No. 1 in the psychology and in the physics of queues," said Larson, who is also known in some circles as "Dr. Queue." Disney designs lines so successfully that parents with young children can happily stand in line for an hour for a four-minute ride—a pretty remarkable feat, Larson said. The capacity of the line and the ride, too, are carefully calculated to balance customer satisfaction with profits.6

Disney also is known as a master of applied queuing psychology—that is, it overestimates wait times so visitors are pleasantly surprised when they hop on rides seemingly ahead of schedule.7

To placate those air travelers stuck in long security lines and take their minds off the frustration of waiting, some airports have deployed circus entertainers and therapy ponies, and provided live music and free snacks.

Larson said those offerings could easily backfire. "It works for Disney in the amusement parks," he said. Passengers who miss flights due to long checkpoint lines may end up being more furious "because they’ll feel like they were being distracted from what’s really important—getting on the plane," he said.8

Technology solutions

Perhaps airports, airlines and other organizations could take a cue on queues from some technology-based solutions now available:

  • Disney reportedly invested $1 billion into its "My Disney Experience" planning system, which uses a smartphone app and MagicBand bracelets with embedded radio-frequency identification chips that visitors use to schedule ride times, character meet-and-greets, parade viewing and dining.9
  • Professional line service companies are popping up in some major cities for those who feel inpatient or too busy to wait for tickets at box offices, seats at restaurants or just-released electronic games at stores. For example, you can hire SOLD (Same Ole’ Line Dudes) via its website or app so one of its line sitters can hold your place in a line. The first hour costs $25 and each additional 30 minutes cost $10.
  • Organizations such as QLess and Wavetec developed electronic queue management systems to help businesses organize, engage and measure waiting and enhance the customer experience. That means using technology to allow customers to reserve spots in line and manage customer flow within stores.

Worthwhile waiting?

There will always be customers waiting in lines somewhere. Some organizations may not have the means to hire more employees, invest in technology or partner with experts to find ways to quell queues.

For some organizations, however, long lines may actually be enhancing their reputations and increasing product appeal. Think about the first day a must-have gadget or hot concert ticket goes on sale, or an exclusive restaurant that doesn’t take reservations opens.

Waiting for something can increase its value, according to Ayelet Fishbach, a behavioral science professor, and this increase can cause customers to be more patient. In other words, it makes something worth waiting for. The waiting culture created around this demand could be a signal of quality for some and can increase the product or service’s value or a organization’s reputation.10

This waiting culture, obviously, can’t apply to airports and airlines because their long lines are delaying customers from the service they’ve already paid for: a plane ride.

—compiled by Mark Edmund, associate editor


  1. Alex Stone, "Why Waiting Is Torture," New York Times, Aug. 18, 2012, http://tinyurl.com/nytimes-lines-torture.
  2. Anna Swanson, "What Really Drives You Crazy About Waiting in Line (It Actually Isn’t the Wait at All)," Washington Post, Nov. 27, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/wash-post-crazy-lines.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid.
  7. Stone, "Why Waiting Is Torture," see reference 1.
  8. Harriet Baskas, "When It Comes to Fixing TSA Security Lines, Everyone’s Got an Idea," NBC News.com, May 20, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/nbc-tsa-fixes.
  9. Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, "How Disney Manages Its Legendary Lines," Fox Travel News, June 3, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/fox-disney-lines.
  10. Bourree Lam, "The Logic of Long Lines," The Atlantic, Jan. 28, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/atlantic-lines-logic.


Two Teams Achieve Silver-Level Status at ASQ WCQI Competition

Two teams from Jabil Circuit—one from Shanghai and one from Singapore—were awarded silver-level status as part of the ASQ International Team Excellence Awards Process for their work in increasing efficiencies and financial savings.

ASQ announced the silver-level award winners—along with two bronze-level teams—at its World Conference on Quality and Improvement in May in Milwaukee. A total of 36 teams from nine countries competed for gold, silver and bronze status. No teams in this year’s awards process earned gold status.

The Jabil Circuit, Shanghai team used Six Sigma tools to shorten order response time to increase customer satisfaction and efficiencies. The successful project also resulted in significant annual cost savings.

The Jabil Circuit, Singapore team leveraged lean and Six Sigma tools to decrease material handling costs. As a result, the team reduced warehouse process cycle time by 61%, reduced operating cost by 22% and increased warehouse space by 92%.

Teams awarded bronze-level status were:

  • Molinos Rio de la Plata, Loading Like Tetris Team, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Telefonica-Argentina, Complaint Busters Team, Buenos Aires.

Nearly 3,000 people attended this year’s conference. Next year’s event is scheduled for May 1-3, 2017, in Charlotte, NC. For more information, visit http://asq.org/wcqi.


ASQ, CEO Show Collaborate on Exec Interviews

ASQ has partnered with the CEO TV Show, a nationally syndicated program, to develop a series of interviews and facilitate conversations with leading business executives to offer insights on the role and importance of quality in the 21st century. The focus will be on how quality has transformed from a back-end compliance activity to a front-end competitive differentiator.

Earlier this year, five CEOs were interviewed about their perspectives on quality: David Cote, chairman and CEO of Honeywell; Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of the American Association of Retired Persons; Terry Jones, founder of Travelocity and Kayak; Ralph de la Vega, vice chair of AT&T Inc. and CEO of AT&T Business Solutions and AT&T International; and Charles Lanktree, president and CEO of Eggland’s Best.

ASQ and the CEO TV Show also facilitated a virtual audio roundtable that included: Adam Goldstein, president and COO of Royal Caribbean; Dan Hesse, former CEO of Sprint; and Kip Tindell, CEO of the Container Store.

Read an article based on the transcript of the roundtable at http://tinyurl.com/forbes-ceo-roundtable. Watch for updates on the ASQ-CEO TV Show initiative at http://videos.asq.org and http://videos.ceoshow.com.

ASQ News

MEMBER HONORED Robin Dudash was awarded ASQ’s Performance Award and Recognition Innovation Bronze Award for her work on ASQ webinar-based education programs. Dudash, a senior member of ASQ, is president of Innovative Quality Products and Systems Inc. in Lyndora, PA, where she oversees all quality assurance webinar courses. She also oversees the ASQ Pittsburgh Section’s webinar-based training programs.

PACT ANNOUNCED The ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) and the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) formed an alliance that allows ANAB to administer the NAME accreditation program. For more information about the pact, visit http://anab.org.

SCHOLARSHIP AWARDED The Healthcare Division awarded its $2,000 Nightingale Scholarship to Heidi Kook-Willis of Austin, TX, for her outstanding commitment to pursuing quality improvement in the healthcare field. Kook-Willis is working toward her graduate degree as an adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner at the University of Texas, Medical Branch School of Nursing, Galveston, TX. She is employed as a telemetry nurse at Seton Medical Center Hays in Kyle, TX, and as a palliative nurse at Home Therapy of Austin.

NEW STATISTICS BOOK A new ASQ Quality Press book features a collection of 90 Statistics Roundtable columns previously published in QP. Statistical Roundtables, edited by Christine Anderson-Cook and Lu Lu, is broken into nine chapters on topics such as statistical engineering, data quality and measurement, data collection and key statistical tools. The 480-page book costs $60 for ASQ members and $99 for nonmembers. For more details, visit http://tinyurl.com/stats-roundtables.

CASE STUDY ADDED A new case study profiles a U.S. Department of Defense lab that became the first of its kind to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation for its work in analyzing chemical warfare agents. Visit http://tinyurl.com/asq-case-study-cwa to read it.

Short Runs

THIRTY-FOUR ORGANIZATIONS submitted applications for the 2016 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award: 21 healthcare organizations, four education organizations, four nonprofits, three small businesses and two service businesses. Baldrige examiners will evaluate the award applicants throughout the summer before conducting site visits. Recipients will be selected in November and receive their awards in the spring of 2017.

THE 21ST INTERNATIONAL Conference of the Israel Society for Quality will be Nov. 15-17 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Watch for updates on the scheduled presentations and lectures by visiting www.en.quality2016.co.il.

THE AMERICAN PRODUCTION and Inventory Control Society will host its annual conference Sept. 25-27 in Washington, D.C. More than 70 presenters will speak on supply chain, operations and logistics management topics, including strategy, risk and resilience, sales and operations planning, and leadership. For more information, visit www.apics.org/annual-conference/home.

Who’s Who in Q

NAME: Paulo Sampaio.

RESIDENCE: Braga, Portugal.

EDUCATION: Doctorate in industrial engineering from the University of Minho in Braga.

CURRENT JOB: Professor of quality and organizational excellence at the University of Minho.

INTRODUCTION TO QUALITY: In the third year of his industrial engineering graduate program, Sampaio took a quality management course from Tavares de Oliveira. From the beginning of the course, he decided quality would become his professional field.

PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Project manager at the Portuguese Association of Certification and visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

ASQ ACTIVITIES: Member of the Quality Management Journal editorial board; country counselor for Portugal; member of membership committee; member of the Influential Voices group of bloggers; member of the Feigenbaum medal committee; member of the Global Advisory Board; and liaison to the voice of the costumer committee.

PUBLISHED WORKS: Sampaio has had about 200 papers published in international and national journals, conference proceedings, books and technical reports. He also recently coauthored Quality in the 21st Century: Perspectives from ASQ Feigenbaum Medal Winners (Springer International Publishing, 2016).

RECENT HONORS: Received Best Paper Award in the student technical paper competition at ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement in 2006; received best doctoral thesis in the field of quality from the Portuguese Association for Quality in 2008; named one of QP’s "40 New Voices of Quality Under 40" in 2011; ASQ’s Feigenbaum Medalist in 2012; and nominated as an associate member of the International Academy for Quality in 2014.

PERSONAL: Wife, Carolina; two children—Pedro, 6, and Carolina, 2.

FAVORITE WAYS TO RELAX: Traveling, watching cinema, reading and mountain biking.

QUALITY QUOTE: A better world with quality.

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