Automated Queuing Systems Don’t Reduce Waiting Times

A large bank installed an automated queuing system at its branches.  Clients were required to enter the details of their transactions on a terminal and receive a queuing number and then wait to be called by the teller via a display on a video screen. 

The system replaced the previous process of clients writing on paper transaction slips and proceeding to the tellers.   Instead, the teller would access and process the client’s transaction from the entry of transaction data into the terminal. 

With the automated queuing system, the teller no longer has to input data from the previous handwritten transaction slips.  The teller also no longer has to decipher the penmanship of individual clients from the transaction slips.  Errors and rework are eliminated.  The teller just has to take and confirm the cash or checks the client is giving or just has to count the cash the client is withdrawing.  The time to process the transaction was thereby reduced.

But was the process time really significantly reduced?  Did the system really improve the client’s experience, or specifically, did it reduce the client’s time at the bank? 

Queuing systems have become the norm among banks.  But the system varies from one bank to the next.  Most of the differences between banks are in the user interface, which consists of the design and manner of layout of buttons and sequence of steps in how data would be entered into a remote terminal.

Some banks also offer the feature in which clients can access the queuing system online from their smartphones, tablets, or desktop computers before going to the bank’s branch.  A client either receives a QR code or a transaction number which he or she then presents at the bank.  The client is then given an queuing number which is usually for a line exclusive to those who did the input online. 

For the walk-in clients who had to input data into a terminal, I didn’t see much difference in their waiting times whatever bank they went to.  For some, especially those who aren’t what people call tech-savvy, it got worse.  They would almost always require assistance from a nearby employee or even the security guard.  When there were plenty of clients, such as on Mondays, Fridays, payroll days (i.e. mid- and end-month), and tax filing deadlines, the waiting times would surge to more than an hour.  Fewer tellers during the day would aggravate the waits of clients. 

I also didn’t see much difference in the productivity of tellers despite the elimination of hand-written transaction slips.  Tellers still had to count cash and examine checks which made up most of the transaction time.  Tellers also had to print out the client’s transaction receipts or withdrawal confirmations.  When the system sometimes ran slow or hangs, any productivity gained is wiped out. 

The less tech-savvy clients also sometimes don’t take advantage of the queuing system’s feature to bundle transactions under one queuing number.  Some clients would enter one transaction for one queuing number at a time as they had been used to do with hand-written transaction slips.  The less tech-savvy clients would then have a handful of queuing numbers which adds to the queue to the tellers and lengthens the teller’s time to process as she’d be going through the client’s queue numbers one by one.

The tech-savvy clients have a slight advantage as they usually are assigned an exclusive line separate from the walk-ins.  In some banks, they can go straight to the teller, show their QR codes or online numbers and have their transactions done right away.  But in many cases, tech-savvy clients still had to wait.  Tellers would often be busy with clients at the time the tech-savvy clients arrive.  In some banks, they’d still be required to register at a terminal to get a queuing number and there’d be a waiting line there too. 

Automated queuing systems by themselves don’t reduce waiting or process times.  As much as the system may make it more convenient for clients and efficient for tellers, it addresses only a part of the process. 

Queues and how long they will be and how long one will wait are determined not only by the length it takes do a process but also by the number of processors (i.e. tellers) and by the behaviour of arrivals (i.e. how many clients arrive at a given time and how many transactions they are bringing).

A state-of-the-art automated system can only do so much.  If banks are serious about improving productivity for tellers and clients, they should take a harder look at the steps and gather information about the volume of transactions done at their branches. 

And when I say steps and information, I mean all the steps and all the information that would be involved.  Targeting one step at a time does not improve productivity; one has to target the entire process from beginning to end and identify the factors that influence all of it. 

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Problems are Doorways to Opportunities

Since the start of 2021, semiconductor chips, which are used in cars, trucks, computers, and smart-phones, have been in short supply.  Supply has been so short that automotive companies have shut down assembly lines and consumer electronics corporations have delayed roll-outs of new products. 

Bloomberg reported in its September 22, 2021 Supply Lines newsletter that the gap between “ordering a semiconductor chip and delivery is still growing.” 

But four years before in 2017 (see chart above), it was already taking at least 10 weeks to deliver a semiconductor chip from time of order.  So, while businesses in 2021 anxiously wait up to 20 weeks for their chips to arrive, why were industries tolerating long order-to-delivery times of up to 10 weeks in the first place?

The dictionary defines a problem as an “unsatisfactory situation.”  It is a “state of difficulty that needs to be resolved.” 

Many of us equate problems with crises and disruptions, that is, we see a problem only when it hurts us such that it becomes urgent to address it. 

Hence, we tend to avoid them or try to resolve them as quickly as possible.  The fewer problems we have, the better, we usually say. 

The dictionary, however, also says it is a “a question proposed for solution or discussion.” 

Problems can be doorways to opportunities, in which if we think of them that way, we should seek them out and solve them for the ideas that would benefit us. 

Enterprises and even governments are scrambling hard in 2021 to fix the semiconductor chip shortage that has crippled factories and caused supply shortfalls of many products, from cell-phones to computers.  Most saw the problem when order-to-delivery lead times extended from 10 to 20 weeks.

If enterprises in 2017, however, proposed the “question” of shortening the supply lead time of 10 weeks, and found a solution, would industries be undergoing a crisis in 2021?  Wasn’t there a way to bring the number of weeks of lead time down to 4 weeks or even less? 

It was obvious that since 2017, company executives had accepted the 10-week order-to-delivery cycle and adjusted their inventories and production schedules to cover for the waiting time.  Executives managed the 10-week lead time into their financial forecasts.  The 10-week lead time was not considered a problem. 

If one enterprise in 2017 had seen the 10-week lead time as a problem rather than as an acceptable fate, and in the process of “discussion” found a “solution,” one wonders how much of a competitive advantage that enterprise would have in 2021. 

It’s never really worthwhile to ask “what-if” questions especially after the fact of a crisis.  But in the process of problem solving, as a question becomes clearer, it would have been likely that a solution would have addressed future adverse situations. 

As companies see their businesses compromised by the semiconductor shortage of 2021, it becomes more sensible to seek out the problems and pose the questions for “discussion” and “solution.”

For the pain many had been experiencing in 2021, it would have been worth it if they had only sought and solve problems then. 

It’s never really good to dwell in the past unless we learn something from it. 

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