Rational Decisions & Elevators

In one of the buildings at Microsoft there are three elevator stacks. Two going from the 1st floor (or rez-de-chaussee as we say in France) to the 5th (top) floor, and one that goes from the parking garage to the 5th floor. If a person is on the 1st floor and presses the button to summon an elevator—the elevator that is closest to the 1st floor will arrive and open. In other words: all three are intended to be used from the 1st to 5th floors. But, if a person is in the parking garage (where elevator 3 can reach) only a person moving freight can use the elevator. The following sign is posted:


However, go up one floor, and the so-called “freight elevator” (it looks just like the other elevators but is slightly larger) is fine to use. Go to the parking garage and it’s off limits for nearly everyone.

Most people park in the garage (one of the great designs on the Microsoft campus is that the vast majority of parking is underground, so it is a more attractive campus as seen below), and they either walk around and take the stairs to the 1st floor or disobey the sign and take the 3rd elevator that is supposedly off limits.

A lot of people disregard the sign. Why? Probably, because most people see the lack of logic in the directive to not use this elevator. By walking up one flight of stairs, the same elevator can be used for non-freight conveyance.

The real intent of whoever posted the sign was probably a sensible desire: keep the freight elevator available for freight when it is needed (which is quite infrequent throughout the day compared to the normal trips the elevator makes).

To solve the problem, I recommend an idea that will fulfill these two requirements:

1) Make the freight elevator as available as possible for freight. For example, corporate movers do not want to be dramatically slowed down as they wait repeatedly for people to stop using the freight elevator from any floor.

2) Allow normal passengers to use the freight elevator as much as possible while also allowing them to avoid the delays that occur when the elevator is being used for freight. They would rather just take the stairs and go to the 1st floor and use one of the other elevators in this case. It speeds their trips in all cases.

To do this, the solution is simple but two-fold:

1) As it is already—people who are not visitors in a building have to have a special card to gain access to the building. As a person who wants to haul freight approaches the elevator and scans the card, the elevator goes into “freight mode”. The elevator is then reserved for some special period of time, configurable on a keypad, just for the freight purpose. People moving freight here will then have exclusive use for a period of time. In summary: To enable the scenario just put a small piece of info on the card of class of employees who would need to move freight.

2) Have a small light that signals to normal passengers that the freight elevator is in use for that purpose (maybe a countdown clock that signals how much time is left in the reserved period). That way, if a person approaches the elevator, he or she will know that it is probably just better to walk up to the 1st floor and catch another elevator.

It’s a low-cost and simple solution mostly leveraging a system that’s already in place. It also maximizes the usage of all elevators (gets people to work more quickly, saves time and frustration). It’s also logical!



About John R. Durant

Drawing on years fostering innovation in the high-tech industry, most notably at Microsoft, John is a principal researcher at Savvysherpa building new businesses.
This entry was posted in Behavior, Economics, Experiments, Innovation, Marketing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Rational Decisions & Elevators

  1. Christian says:

    John, I have a third option that, I believe, is consistent with our tendency to append rather than remove silly rules and guidelines: just redefine the definition of “freight” to include human transport. Basically, lower the barrier on this obviously discriminating definition which impacts the lazy and stair-phobic among us. With this new definition, everyone can use the elevator without fear of ridicule or repercussion.

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