Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why are queues fair?

If you live in India or if you have been to India you would have seen the ineffectiveness or total lack of queues at places you would expect them. It is not a total lack of queues but rather a glaring absence in places where they would make a lot of difference to the ease of access to the service or location for the people involved.

You see queues in Bus/Railway ticketing counters but not for boarding trains or buses. You see queues at Movie Theaters but not in banks or post offices. The rule of thumb is that you see queues where they are enforced and never when they are not. People do not realize that queues would in fact reduce the average waiting time for people and that it would increase the efficiency of the system and comfort levels for the people and decrease the stress levels of service providers as well as customers.

What is a queue? A queue is a protocol where people are served on a first come, first serve basis. But why is a queue fair? When a service is provided to a set of customer and when all the customers can not be served in one go, a selection has to be made from the set of customers to figure out who gets served first. This selection has to be based on some factor so that the selection concept can be used for different kinds of services. In a simple first in first out queue system the differentiating factor is taken as the time when a person arrives at the location of the service provider.

But why is the time of arrival considered a fair factor. The reason is simple - it is one of the least discriminating factors that can be used. When a queue system is not in place, the stronger and more aggressive people gets served first, and there by the factor used, becomes strength and aggression. Lot of people might not have too much control over their relative strengths - eg women vs men, aged vs young - and are bound to be served much later on an average, at all the places they go to get services, than the stronger and aggressive parties.

Most, if not all, people trying to get a service have equal or almost equal chances in controlling their time of arrival at the location of the service. It is this aspect of queue systems that makes them fair. It should also be noted that queues are not always perfectly fair. Physically challenged people or aged people have slightly lesser control over their times of arrival at the location of service. It is for this reason that some places keep separate queues for such categories of people.

So next time you see a rush near a service location - please think about this - and if you have any sense of fairness stand in a queue or try to form a queue. If three or four people forms a queue near a rush then crowd psychology will kick in and following people will start falling into the queue. So don't wait for somebody else, be a leader and start the queue at places where you don't see one and where you feel you need one.