Last week we looked at a beautifully simple solution to reduce crime in low income housing areas. I wanted to give a few more examples.
A contractor had built a skyscraper downtown in a large city. The new occupants were moving in and the contractor and new owners were finishing up dealing with little issues in finalizing all the little details of the contract. As the number of people in the building increased, the office workers started complaining about the elevators being too slow.
Trying to make changes to the elevator would have been a pretty expensive modification. The people who had designed the building came in, timed the elevators, and determined that they were operating as expected. However, this did little to reduce the number of complaints and the designers set about trying to fix the problem. They looked at the cost of installing additional equipment to speed up the elevators. They also considered segregating some of the elevators as “express elevators” to only reach certain floors.
However, one bright individual stopped concentrating on the elevators and started paying attention to the people as they waited. After studying them for a while he made a suggestion. Install mirrors outside the elevators on each floor. His suggestion was implemented and the complaints disappeared.
The mirrors did nothing to increase the speed of the elevators. They did give the riders something to do while they waited for the elevator to arrive. They could look at themselves in the mirror. This seemingly minor changed solved the real problem–people were bored.
Sometimes we overlook simple solutions because we are trying to solve the wrong problem.
Originally published June 22, 2007.
honestly: that’s why I’m an engineer. I love that moment.
I remember reading this story in a college management course and it has stuck with me ever since. It was actually referenced when we discussed “framing the problem correctly”, which is exactly how you’ve analyzed it. I love examples of this type of solution.
A. Marques says
Sometimes the simplest solutions are the ones that will work. But can you imagine the amount of creativity that is needed to start looking away from the problem and searching for the solution somewhere else? Amazing.
Andrea Micheloni says
It’s interesting. Sometime we really need to see the problem from different angles, and you will find some surprising answers.
Many Japanese corporations use escalators instead of elevators. Psycho-social studies found more people will interact on an escalator than an elevator. Studies also showed escalators increased productivity as well.
David K. says
This only solves the problem of people complaining, it doesn’t solve the problem of decreased elevator efficiency. Maybe there isn’t a good solution to that problem, maybe elminating complaints is good enough, but I think we should be careful about what we consider creative solutions to a problem if they don’t actually address that problem.
As a mathematician/engineer to me the more interesting question is how to improve traffic flow and elevator useage.
Mark Shead says
I think the elevators were performing as expected. So they were getting what they paid for, but they found a way to manage the perception.
As far as actually speeding up the elevators, the only solution I could think of that might be cost effective would be to segment certain elevators to certain floors. What other solutions can you think of?
make fat people take the stairs
Mark Shead says
I lived in a dorm where you were required to take the stairs for the first three floors. It sped things up because the floors two and three were faster to access via stairs and the people going to the higher floors didn’t have to wait on people going to the lower ones. I lived on the fifth floor and took the stairs most of the time because even with five flights to climb it was faster.
actually i can think of another reason for why the complaints stopped is that everyone realised that the management either wasn’t taking it seriously or were insane.
“I registered a complaint that the elevators are too slow… and then they wrote and told me that they’d fixed it by sticky-taping a troll doll above the numbers… and… I just didn’t know what to do after that.”