Queues suck. We all hate them and that’s why queues are such an interesting subject for business owners and Service Designers. If you can find a way to kill the queues, you can improve the experience of the people you serve in a dramatic way.

Inspiration from an NGO

Today, we will take inspiration not from malls or any other for profit business. We will take inspiration from the non-profit sector.

In a small city in the northen mountains of Switzerland there is a food service for people who have a bit of budget issues. This service provides for free the food which can’t be sold anymore by supermarkets but is still very good to eat. My wife visited this center as it is a part of her studies to become a pastor. And here is the story she told me about the queues in that service.

How queues start

In the past, the volunteers of this food giving service would open at exactly 16:00 and serve people in their order of arrival. Later, people started to come earlier and earlier before the opening time. So queues started to form in front of this NGO. Now people tried to come as early as possible and lost a lot of time. By seeing this situation, the team of the NGO found a simple trick. Lottery.

How the NGO killed the queue

At the time of the opening, each person receives a ticket with a number on it. Then, one staff member of the NGO takes out a random number of a hat. The person with that number is then being served. When this person has done her free shopping, the staff member takes another random number out of his hat until everyone is served.

So now, as a user of this service, if you arrive as the first this doesn’t matter anymore. You just need to arrive for the opening hour when the “lottery” tickets are given. So there is no more advantage to arrive earlier.

By doing this, this little NGO service is able to make its users lose less time waiting outside in a queue. Plus by using something as random as lottery tickets, they make sure that there are no advantages given to a particular group of people. Once you are the first, but maybe next time you’ll be the last to be served.

Another simple service design principle

What does this little story teach us? If you want to kill queues, you first have to understand why they form. Here in this case, queues form because people are afraid that they won’t have the chance to have the good stuff. So they come early to be the first. But if being the first is just something random, then you don’t need to come early. You just killed an unnecessary queue.

More articles on queues and Service Design

I have already written a few pieces about how to fix queues with Service Design thinking. Here a selection of these articles if you want to go deeper into that topic: