On multitasking, queues and call centres

Queues and call centres, with linear processing, are inefficient as they result in low utilisation. 

I recently read this excellent article by Tim Harford about multitasking.  In this, he talks about research which says that multitasking makes you ineffective because of high cost of context switching, something that I’ve come to learn over the last three years. He also has this nice piece on ADHD here:

“You’re letting more information into your cognitive workspace, and that information can be consciously or unconsciously combined,” says Carson. Two other psychologists, Holly White and Priti Shah, found a similar pattern for people suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It would be wrong to romanticise potentially disabling conditions such as ADHD. All these studies were conducted on university students, people who had already demonstrated an ability to function well. But their conditions weren’t necessarily trivial — to participate in the White/Shah experiment, students had to have a clinical diagnosis of ADHD, meaning that their condition was troubling enough to prompt them to seek professional help.

This piece, however, is not about multitasking at the personal level. It is not about ADHD, either. It is about Adigas, and Citibank, and call centres.

As I had mentioned in a blog post yesterday, I visited Vasudev Adigas in Jayanagar 8th block on Sunday, after a really long gap. They have completely revamped and redesigned the restaurant, changing the place of the cash counter, food counters, kitchens and what not. Most of the design is good, and speeds up processes. Except for the cash counter.

A “feature” of cash counters at South Indian fast food restaurants is that there is no queueing. Counters are placed in a way that people can crowd around it from all directions. While this leads to some confusion and encourages bad behaviour, it also ensures that the person at the cash counter is always productive. If one customer is dillydallying about her order, the cashier can simply process another order before the first customer has made up her mind.

The new cash counter here, however, have very restricted access which makes it hard for the guy at the counter to multitask. As a consequence, his utilisation is low (customer take time to make up their minds), and the average wait is longer. And there is no queueing either, so there is no reduction in bad behaviour also.

For a similar reason, call centres are ineffective – they result in low utilisation on the part of both the customer and the call centre “executive”. It is unlikely that you spend all your time talking, and there is significant amount of time wasted in being put on hold or listening to boilerplate messages.

For example, I need to talk to Citibank because they’ve issued me a new debit card but haven’t sent me a PIN. When I call them, I’ll have to enter my account number multiple times, waste time listening to their options read out in a linear fashion and simply wait listening to random music when they inevitably put me on hold. On the “executive”‘s side, there will be time taken to verify stuff – when they are stuck with me while they might be serving another customer instead.

Call centres are a vestige of the 1990s (or earlier outside India), when phones were plentiful and internet not so. A significantly superior mechanism is to replace the call centre with chat – either through a web interface or through an app. Chat allows both the customer and the executive to multitask, and not waste time in meaningless tasks. Authentication can be superior to that on the phone, no time is lost navigating (since nothing needs to be read out linearly), and utilisation of both the customer and the executive is really high.

Yet, Citibank doesn’t offer this option. Neither do a lot of other supposedly progressive organisations. And that is disrespect to the time of both their customers and their “executives”. Hopefully, they’ll offer a chat option soon.

As for Adigas, the redesign has been after their new PE money came in. I’m less bullish about their changing their billing counter design.

Strategic Food Attack at Functions

While standing in line waiting rather impatiently for my dinner at Monkee’s engagement today, I was thinking of strategies that one can employ in order to get one’s food quickly in places where there are long lines. I’d faced the same question a couple of weeks back at Sharadha’s wedding, where again the lines were insanely long. On both occasions, I think I managed to figure out reasonable solutions.

The thing with most guests at functions like these is that they tend to approach the food in linear fashion. They start from one end and go through the whole line taking little bits of everything on the menu. Most people I know, especially from the older generation, don’t go back for a second helping. And so this means that they need to get everything the first time round.

The key to cracking the puzzle is to approach things in a non-linear fashion, as I realized at both Monkee’s and Sharadha’s functions. Like for example, today I managed to break down the queue into various sub-queues and with quick mental analysis understood the bottlenecks, and decided my diet for the night based on that.

For example, today I noticed that the main queue was for one table where you got the plates, pakodas, thair vade, jalebi and some salads. These things had all been arranged around a table which seemed non-intuitive to a lot of people because of which the crowd was heavy. And I realized that just to pick off the plate from the stack and scoot off, I could break the line without being impolite.

Next, analyzing the main course queues, I realized that one main line was at the dosa counter, and decided to forego it in the interests of getting my food quickly. Again I quickly ran this optimization algorithm in my head which told me that it was best to have rotis (involved a small wait) and curries in the first round and then rice in the second. It worked beautifully, and I had a hearty dinner without ever standing in line!

At Sharadha’s wedding too I had managed to spot and exploit arbitrage opportunities. For example, I realized that people never stood in queues to get second helpings, and that I could peacefully get around the line by taking the plate from the hardly-crowded salad counter and then going to the main line looking like I was going for second helpings.

The key at buffets is to keep your eyes and ears (yeah, I managed to “spot” that spoons had arrived by hearing their clanging) open to any sort of arbitrage opportunities, and once spotted to ruthlessly exploit them. And you need to be a little RG. If you try to take along too many people when you are implementing such plans, it will be self-defeating and your returns diminish.

And if you find yourself at a buffet which has lots of financial traders, I really pity you.

Hospital Issues

There is one thing that I haven’t managed to understand about Indian hospitals – it is the dependence on patients’ attendants. Every patient is required to have an attendant next to him/her all the time. In case the attendant is going out, he/she has  to literally take permission from the nurses. Full time, it is the attendant’s job to monitor the patient and alert hte doctors/nurses in case something goes wrong. And the main job of the attendant is to bring medicines.

Yeah, you heard that right. Most hospitals here have attached pharmacies, and the usual practice is for the doctor/nurse to scribble down a prescription which the attendant has to fulfil from the hospital’s own pharmacy. I find this practice weird and ridiculous, and wonder why the hospital cannot short-circuit the attendant’s role and then finally bill the medicines to the patient along with the rest of the bill.

Over the last couple of weeks when my mother has been in ho0spital, I’ve found myself being woken up at all times – including 1 am and 5am to go get stuff from the pharmacy. Sometimes it’s been as trivial as a syringe. Usually it’s a much longer list. Such a long list that given the crowd at the pharmacy, it’s impossible to check if the pharmacist has given you everything he’s billed you for. And in the wee hours of Tuesday morning when there was an emergency and my mother had to be shifted to intensive care, the first thing the people there did was to give me an extra-long list of stuff to get from the pharmacy. This was at 3am.

I wonder why this practice came about, and why it still exists. Is it to facilitate easy transfer pricing for the hospital? Is it t give some sort of transparency to the patient about the medicines being given to him? If the latter, can’t the patient just sign on the prescription authorizing the hospital to procure the stuff from the pharmacy? And given the monopoly power that the hospital’s pharmacy has, service is usually slow and inefficient, thus leading to long queues. And in such scenarios, it’s not easy to actually check if you’ve received everything you’ve paid for. And on top of this, you have the hospital giving multiple prescriptions for the same non-consumable thing, maybe just hoping you don’t notice.

And then there is this thing about the attendants. Thankfully we have enough extended family here in Bangalore that it isn’t hard to find volunteers to do vigil at  the hospital when I’m away at work or other things. But what if we were in a place with no relatives around? Or if the patient were living alone in the particular city? How would the hospital handle this? Would they make the patient himself run around to get medicines?

Whenever I think about these things I tend to get extremely pissed off. The hospital has been otherwise good. The nursing staff are all very nice and never crib. The hospital is maintained extremely well and is clean in most places. There are enough duty doctors at all times. And then they expect an attendant to be with the patient. And the expect the attendant to run around all the time to fetch stuff from the hospital’s own pharmacy.

An Inquiry Into Queue Lengths At Wedding Receptions

So last night once again I was at a wedding reception where there was a long queue for getting on stage, wishing the couple, giving gift and getting photo taken. In fact, last night, the queue literally extended to outside the hall (maybe the non-standard orientation of the hall – more breadth than length – contributed to this) – probably the first time I was seeing such a thing. Thankfully the wedding hall entrance was deep inside the building compound, else there might have been the unsavoury sight of the queue extending all the way on to the road.

This has been a problem that has been bugging me for a long time now – regarding queue length at wedding receptions. Apart from a handful, most wedding receptions that I’ve attended in the last 3-4 years have had this issue. You get to the hall and finding a long queue to get on stage, immediately go and plonk yourself at the end of it. By the time you get to the stage and do your business, you are hungry so off you go to the dining hall to probably stand in another queue. And before you know it, the reception is over and all the networking opportunity that you had been thinking of is now lost.

Udupa has a simple solution to this – introduce a token system like they have at commercial banks. Upon entry, you get a token with a number on it and you go take your seat or go around networking. And when your number gets flashed on a screen close to the stage, you go join what will be a very short queue, and you have done your business without really wasting much time. I’m told that this is the system that they had introduced at Tirupati in order to prevent time wastage at queues. However, it is doubtful if such a solution is practicable for the wedding case – people might get offended, people might get too busy to see their token number flashing, and all such.

A while back, I had raised this issue with my mom, and had casually mentioned to her about Udupa’s solution. She said that the whole problem lay with girls’ fascination for make-up nowadays, and that 99% of the problem would get solved if the reception were to start on time. This was never a problem during her time, she mentioned, when makeup was lesser and girls took less time to dress. And she also mentioned that the number of guests hasn’t gone up as significantly as one might expect.

Another solution that my mom suggested was to get the couple to stand at floor level, thus reducing the “distance” between them and the crowd, and making them more accessible. Apparently, she and my dad did that at their wedding – abandoned the stage in favour of the musicians and stood on one side at floor level, and this, she says, made crowds move faster. In fact, even at Katsa’s wedding last weekend, the couple were not at a great height off ground level, and this made them more accessible, and somehow prevented a queue from building up.

Next, we will need to look at the various processes that go into the “proceedings”. So you meet the couple. One of the couple introduces you to the spouse. You make small talk for a couple of minutes. You handover the gift. Then, you stand with the couple and wait for the photographer to make sure everything is ready, and then get your snap taken. And then put exit and head for the grub. So we need to figure out which part of this whole process needs to be reduced, or even done away with.

Gift-giving takes minimal time, so it stays. Introduction is the reason you are there at the wedding, so that also stays. Yesterday’s wedding, they took photos side-on while we were putting small talk. And that still did nothing for queue length. But still, I think that’s a good start – too much time is wasted anyways in organizing gumbals for photos. And the closer gumbals can wait for beyond grubtime.

Small talk? Is there any way that can be reduced? Two weddings recently, the couple has promised to put small talk post-reception but reception has carried on for too long making us put NED before the talk. People kept streaming in even after 10pm. Will the couple abruptly getting off stage at the closing time help? People who come later can seek out the couple wherever they are, and in the meantime they can put the small talk. And this promise means that they don’t have to put small talk when there aer 100 people waiting in the queue?

Any other bright ideas? This is a common problem. Only thing is no one party will pay you enough to come up with a brilliant solution for this – benefits of this are far too distributed. Anyways, your thoughts on this, please.