Cutting in Line
Skip to content
Operations Nov 1, 2011

Cut­ting in Line

Flex­i­ble queu­ing sys­tems may improve cus­tomer service

Based on the research of

Gad Allon

Eran Hanany

It’s an every­day occur­rence in a fast-paced world. A per­son rush­es up to an order­ly queue and asks — or demands — to be allowed to cut in for a plau­si­ble rea­son. Some­times the request suc­ceeds; at oth­er times it does not. Sur­pris­ing­ly, there is lit­tle in the soci­ol­o­gy lit­er­a­ture about what stim­u­lates indi­vid­u­als out­side a line to try cut­ting in and those in it to allow them in or keep them out.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

Now, how­ev­er, Gad Allon, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, and Eran Hanany, a pro­fes­sor at Israel’s Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, have used game the­o­ry to cre­ate a mod­el of queue-cut­ting behav­ior. Their report appears to be the first paper study­ing [queue] jump­ing and cut­ting by ratio­nal cus­tomers,” they write.

Our main mes­sage is that the phe­nom­e­non can be explained on the basis of ratio­nal behav­ior and oper­a­tional dynam­ics,” Allon explains. We basi­cal­ly show that there are sys­tems in which cut­ting in line — and let­ting oth­ers cut in — is a social norm that can actu­al­ly be ben­e­fi­cial to the sys­tem and its cus­tomers in the long run. This con­clu­sion relax­es a com­mon implic­it assump­tion made by most papers in the oper­a­tional literature.”

Reflect­ing the Gold­en Rule

Basi­cal­ly, the two researchers find, the deci­sion to allow an indi­vid­ual to cut into a line works in much the same way as the Gold­en Rule: Do unto oth­ers as you would have them do to you. In the case of queues, Allon says, the issue is I’ll let you in now, but you or some­one else will let me cut in in the future’.” From the point of view of the indi­vid­ual who per­mits line cut­ting, he adds, the think­ing is I have a non-urgent need for the ser­vice for which I’m queu­ing now, but I might have an urgent need in the future’.”

The stim­u­lus for the project came sev­er­al years ago when Allon pre­pared a talk on the applic­a­bil­i­ty of his research to Israel. One of the things that came to my mind was the term peo­ple use in Israel to sig­nal that they have an urgent request or require only a lit­tle time from the ser­vice provider,” he recalls. Peo­ple will usu­al­ly say to the oth­er queue-dwellers that they only have a quick ques­tion’.” He and Hanany real­ized that this is a fair­ly com­mon behav­ior in dif­fer­ent parts of the world,” Allon con­tin­ues. Peo­ple in air­port secu­ri­ty queues may ask to cut the line to avoid miss­ing their flights. Sim­i­lar behav­ior is observed in Europe when in line for train tickets.”

When the two researchers found lit­tle research on queue-jump­ing in the lit­er­a­ture they start­ed to build their own mod­el. It rec­og­nizes three key fea­tures: legit­i­mate rea­sons to cut in line; the need that every­one some­times has to cut in line for those rea­sons; and the fact that indi­vid­u­als in the queue can­not ver­i­fy the cutter’s claim when it is made, but can do so after­ward by see­ing that the cut­ter per­formed the promised brief trans­ac­tion, for example.

Sin­gle and Repeat­ed Games

To devel­op their mod­el, the pair applied game the­o­ry. They set up a series of games in which cus­tomers await­ing ser­vice have var­i­ous lev­els of urgency and dif­fer­ent require­ments for ser­vice. In a doctor’s office those could range from a request for a pre­scrip­tion renew­al to a med­ical emer­gency. The games assume that the ser­vice orga­ni­za­tion — the doctor’s office in this case — does not con­trol the line but, rather, puts the indi­vid­u­als in it in charge. Peo­ple enter­ing the office can decide whether to join the end of the line or try to cut in. And patients approached with a cut­ting request can decide whether or not to allow the requester to cut in.

They [mod­els] allow us to high­light and dis­till the key fea­tures we believe are essen­tial and are the main dri­vers of the stud­ied phe­nom­e­na.” — Allon

As is com­mon in game the­o­ry, Allon and Hanany mod­eled the sit­u­a­tion first as a sin­gle-state game and then as a set of repeat­ed games. When cus­tomers play the game just once, the only pos­si­ble pri­or­i­ty rule that can emerge is first in, first out; cut-ins must be reject­ed. But when play­ers engage in repeat­ed games, the pat­tern changes. Indi­vid­u­als in the line give way to those who appear to have more urgent needs or will require only a min­i­mum of ser­vice time. That behav­ior applies even when indi­vid­u­als in the queue can­not be sure that the would-be cut­ters’ stat­ed needs are legitimate.

The games reflect the real­i­ty of dif­fer­ent types of queues. The key dif­fer­ence between an overnight line for World Series tick­ets or the lat­est new iPad and a queue at the local bank or doctor’s office is that the for­mer is a one-time occur­rence and the lat­ter a repeat­ed one,” Allon says. This alone explains why cut­ting will not be allowed in the for­mer and may be sup­port­ed in the latter.”

The Val­ue of Mod­els

The fact that the study pre­dicts behav­ior in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions indi­cates the beau­ty of mod­els,” in Allon’s words. They allow us to high­light and dis­till the key fea­tures we believe are essen­tial and are the main dri­vers of the stud­ied phe­nom­e­na,” he con­tin­ues. The exact details, such as base­ball ver­sus bas­ket­ball and bank ver­sus air­port, are immaterial.”

Allon and Hanany empha­size that their research has prac­ti­cal val­ue. One of the impli­ca­tions of our study is that atten­tion should be giv­en to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of endors­ing [the] social norms [involved in queue-jump­ing] when design­ing a ser­vice facil­i­ty, specif­i­cal­ly the queu­ing area,” they write. For exam­ple, signs may be dis­played… Alter­na­tive­ly, one may decide not to put ropes delin­eat­ing the lines, as a way of allow­ing pos­si­ble legit­i­mate queue-jump­ing. In par­tic­u­lar, the stud­ied mod­els can be used by the sys­tem man­ag­er to decide when an inter­ven­tion may be need­ed to improve the sys­tem per­for­mance and cus­tomer ser­vice, and when they may be able to rely just on com­mu­ni­ty enforcement.”

At present, the mod­el is entire­ly the­o­ret­i­cal. How­ev­er, the two researchers have devised means of test­ing it. The idea will be to ini­ti­ate cut­ting attempts in dif­fer­ent places, with dif­fer­ent claims, vary­ing the size of the com­mu­ni­ty — such as a small med­ical prac­tice ver­sus a large bank with occa­sion­al vis­i­tors — and test­ing our pre­dic­tions regard­ing the like­li­hood of accept­ing such cut­ting attempts,” Allon explains. So far, poten­tial lia­bil­i­ty issues such as pos­si­ble vio­lence accom­pa­ny­ing efforts to cut into a line have pre­vent­ed any projects to test the mod­el in prac­tice. But we’re start­ing work on that with soci­ol­o­gists and social psy­chol­o­gists,” Allon says.

Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight

We Will Be Right with You: Man­ag­ing cus­tomers with vague promises

Glob­al Dual Sourc­ing Strate­gies: Should you source your car­bon fiber bicy­cle frames from Mex­i­co or China?

A Sur­pris­ing Secret to Netflix’s Run­away Suc­cess: A lit­tle uncer­tain­ty can go a long way

Featured Faculty

Gad Allon

Member of the Department of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences from 2005-2016

About the Writer

Peter Gwynne is a freelance writer based in Sandwich, Mass.

About the Research

Allon, Gad and Eran Hanany. 2011. Cutting in Line: Social Norms in Queues, Management Science, 58(3): 493-506.

Read the original

Suggested For You

Most Popular

Organizations

How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.

Leadership

Why Warmth Is the Under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed Skill Lead­ers Need

The case for demon­strat­ing more than just competence.

Most Popular Podcasts

Careers

Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Improv­ing Rela­tion­ships with Colleagues

Cowork­ers can make us crazy. Here’s how to han­dle tough situations.

Social Impact

Pod­cast: How You and Your Com­pa­ny Can Lend Exper­tise to a Non­prof­it in Need

Plus: Four ques­tions to con­sid­er before becom­ing a social-impact entrepreneur.

Careers

Pod­cast: Attract Rock­star Employ­ees — or Devel­op Your Own

Find­ing and nur­tur­ing high per­form­ers isn’t easy, but it pays off.

Marketing

Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.