Defining the problem of elevator waiting times (2023)

Matt Linderman wrote this on Sep 17 2008 25 comments

Below is an interesting story about a building where tenants were complaining about long elevator waiting times. The solution shows how the key to solving a problem is often defining the problem correctly in the first place.

A classic story illustrates very well the potential cost of placing a problem in a disciplinary box. It involves a multistoried office building in New York. Occupants began complaining about the poor elevator service provided in the building. Waiting times for elevators at peak hours, they said, were excessively long. Several of the tenants threatened to break their leases and move out of the building because of this…

Management authorized a study to determine what would be the best solution. The study revealed that because of the age of the building no engineering solution could be justified economically. The engineers said that management would just have to live with the problem permanently.

The desperate manager called a meeting of his staff, which included a young recently hired graduate in personnel psychology…The young man had not focused on elevator performance but on the fact that people complained about waiting only a few minutes. Why, he asked himself, were they complaining about waiting for only a very short time? He concluded that the complaints were a consequence of boredom. Therefore, he took the problem to be one of giving those waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that those waiting could look at each other or themselves without appearing to do so. The manager took up his suggestion. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped.

Today, mirrors in elevator lobbies and even on elevators in tall buildings are commonplace.

Excerpted from “Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track” [Amazon].

Matt Linderman wrote this on Sep 17 2008 There are 25 comments.


on 17 Sep 08

Another rehash of the old elevator & mirror story, eh? It’s been around a while.

David Andersen

on 17 Sep 08

I get the point you are trying to make, but the example is silly. Not everyone is interested in trading time for the opportunity to preen and gawk. Why not fast elevators and mirrors?

Sam Brown

on 17 Sep 08

An old one but a good one, now to figure out a way to incorporate that kind of psychology into my work! ;)

Manik Juneja

on 17 Sep 08

They need to put a mirror on browsers too. People complain of too much loading time for some websites ;-)


on 17 Sep 08

(Video) Elevator Physics Problem - Normal Force on a Scale & Apparent Weight

I prefer the approach many European elevators take. Instead of pressing a button in the elevator, you press one in the lobby and it tells you which elevator shaft to go in.

This lets the elevators load balance and plan for the most efficient combinations of passengers.


on 17 Sep 08

I also heard that NASA spent millions of dollars to develop a pen that could write in space, while the Soviets used a fifteen cent pencil. Folksy urban legends as management metaphors work great!


on 17 Sep 08

@ceejayoz – There are a good number of NYC buildings that use that method.


on 17 Sep 08

I like the functionality of the selecting what floor before you enter, it is one of those, why didn’t we think of that before moments. Cuts down some cost too because you only need 1 set of numbers rather than a set in every elevator.

Morning Toast

on 17 Sep 08

It’s all about entertainment. People like to have something to do. It’s the same reason they put newspapers in some (men’s) bathrooms.

Most of my projects back in college revolved around games and gaming parts (like word searches, cards, etc). The prof asked why all my things seem to be interactive and games. I told him it’s because that’s all I’ve known - I’m of an age where I’ve always had something to do since I was a child; something to keep me occupied…games, handhelds, toys, legos, whatever. And people could relate to my projects because they were more “fun” in many ways that just a straight painting or drawing study. I’m not saying my projects were always successful (the prof wasn’t impressed), but my peers (spectators) enjoyed them and that’s more valuable to me.

Stories like the elevator are just examples of “if you can’t find a solution to the problem, change the problem.”


on 17 Sep 08

Rich, you’ll actually need more sets of number buttons: 1 set per floor instead of 1 set per elevator.


on 17 Sep 08

“Cuts down some cost too because you only need 1 set of numbers rather than a set in every elevator.”

Uh… well, if I have 4 elevators and 10 floors, then I’d, traditionally, need 10 up buttons, 10 down buttons and 4 copies of each number (totaling 40, as well as emergency buttons, etc. which are constant between models). Under the new model, I’d need 0 up buttons, 0 down buttons and 10 copies of each number (totaling 100). So you end up needing 40 more bits of plastic in the better UI version.

Or am I missing something inherent to this?

(Video) Boy uses umbrella to prevent elevator door from closing, causes free fall


on 17 Sep 08

Paul/Ben, you are missing something. You have to walk down the stairs, push the button you want, then walk back up and wait.

Super B

on 17 Sep 08

The point of this story is getting to the “root cause” of the problem at hand, not just redefining the problem (although they go hand in hand). In my experience software teams often don’t dig deep enough when user experience or performance issues arise, they simply fix the surface “bug”...

Spending a few minutes asking “Why” will often reveal the root cause of most problems. In fact, I often encourage my team to ask “Why” at least five times (pretend you’re 5 years old..:-). This really helps get to the bottom of any problem, which just like the story mentioned, is often much different than you first imagined.


on 17 Sep 08

doh, “MATH IS HARD” :)


on 17 Sep 08

I read the elevator story from Edward de Bono in the late 60s with his idea of lateral thinking. Making education progress that way would be wonderful, but in the 40 years since lateral thinking hit the scene, does education follow that path? No, we just smiles at the stories of the short man who lived on the tenth floor, and the puddle of water in the locked room.

It would take a revolution in social justice and in the definition of what makes a meaningful life to make any kind of dent in the school structure.

Change in society comes first – and that involves a shift in power – then the will would be there to change what happens in schools.

By the way your Twitter Stats are:Following 13Followers 5,623

So many followers, but you don’t see them.


on 17 Sep 08

The point of this story [...]

is that people tend to be self-absorbed and vain enough to be infinitely more interested in the vagaries of their own hair/outfit than they could possibly be in, for instance, architectural details.

Also, the version I heard said it was a mirror salesperson, noit a psychology expert. Maybe there’s some overlap there though.

(Video) Short film "The Elevator"

David Andersen

on 17 Sep 08

“The point of this story is getting to the “root cause” of the problem at hand.”

If that was true they would have come up with faster elevators. I don’t recall the story mentioning anyone complaining about not being able to preen.

“In fact, I often encourage my team to ask “Why” at least five times…”

Why not ten times? Ask yourself that at least five times.

Tom Davis

on 17 Sep 08

The question the new guy ask was, “What would be universally interesting. And the answer was, “People are interested in themselves, and in looking at others without committing to a conversation.”

As GeeIWonder noticed, that’s really the point of the story. The rest anyone could have figured out.

@Manik Juneja, what we need to do now is figure out how to incorporate doing something personal or voyeuristic in a browser which would not suffer from the loading time problem.

Michael Moncur

on 17 Sep 08

That’s just the kind of community-driven corporate nonsense I hate putting up with. “They asked for faster elevators. Let’s just give them mirrors so they can preen themselves.”

Next time I make a web site that loads slowly, I’ll put a little JavaScript Breakout game on there for people to play while they wait. Then I won’t have to solve the real problem.

Marcus Blankenship

on 18 Sep 08

Is this why splash screens were invented? To give people something to look at while your software takes forever to load? Maybe my splash screen should tap into the computers web cam… :-)


on 18 Sep 08

(Video) Investigation of Optimization Techniques on the Elevator Dispatching Problem

This is EXACTLY why loading screens were invented.

Chris Snyder

on 18 Sep 08

That is the most depressing thing I’ve read all morning. Vanity will always trump good engineering.

Must get to work on the laser stare that will allow me to subtly deform lobby mirrors without appearing to do so, thus making people feel both fat AND bored.

Henk Kleynhans

on 18 Sep 08

Yeah, Sadly I’m busy scouring the 37Signals blogs and Highrise Forums to see if there is any progress being made to give the world a Google Gears version of Highrise.

I love Highrise and have recommended it to many many people, but it’s getting slower and slower by the day.

Please don’t show me a mirror!


on 18 Sep 08

The point of much design is to alleviate some kind of aggravation or pain. Here it turns out that the reported pain is caused by something non-obvious. Some will decry the solution as dishonest, but the pain went away – and with no adverse effects. No doubt the apocryphal building didn’t charge the apocryphal tenants for the apocryphal retrofitting of mirrors—and the tenants’ pain was alleviated faster, too, than “hood engineering” would have allowed.

It’s a cheesy story about a very good lesson. Not sure why anyone would bother to nitpick so much (altho it is just a little bit old and well-beaten).

Greg Paskill

on 20 Sep 08

This is reminiscent of what happens repeatedly in hiring. You’ve got the right people trying to solve the wrong problem.

I once heard of a similar situation where a company went through 3 VP’s of Marketing until their product actually sold. The company repeatedly thought their campaigns were no good. The 3rd VP actually tried using the product and saw it was difficult to install (a showerhead that wouldn’t leak.) When he suggested a repackaging and based the messaging on ease-of-use and great massaging showers, sales skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, these types of problems force today’s employers to develop an incessant fear of making a hiring mistake. Then they don’t get the chance to practice hiring, just like truly capable people can’t practice reframing problems.

This discussion is closed.

About Matt Linderman

Now: The creator of Vooza, "the Spinal Tap of startups." Previously: Employee #1 at 37signals and co-author of the books Rework and Getting Real.

Read all of Matt Linderman’s posts, and follow Matt Linderman on Twitter.

(Video) Elevator System Design | Grokking the Object Oriented System Design Interview Question
If you liked this post by Matt Linderman, you’ll probably like reading , Quote: Survival and profit are fine, but if you…, and Design Decisions: New forums at Basecamp and Highrise


What is the appropriate wait time for an elevator? ›

What is an appropriate wait time for elevators? We try to aim for an average of 20 seconds if you're in a grade A office building. If you're in a residential building, that average is a little longer.

Why are some elevators so slow? ›

A large round pipe piston is moved up and down by a pressurized fluid (in this case oil) pumped into it by a compressor moving it up, or draining it, moving it down. That doesn't happen quickly, thus hydraulic elevators are slow as molasses.

Where do elevators wait? ›

It is typically called a "home landing" and this is usually a parameter that can be set in the elevator program by the elevator technician. Usually, you want at least one elevator to the home to the main floor so that there is usually one waiting when someone comes into the building.

What is the 3 5 rule for elevators? ›

The clearance between the hoistway doors or gates and the hoistway edge of the landing sill shall not exceed 3 inches (76 mm). The distance between the hoistway face of the landing door or gate and the car door or gate shall not exceed 5 inches (127 mm).

What is the 30 second elevator rule? ›

An elevator pitch, also known as a 30-second pitch, is a short, persuasive speech that you can use to introduce yourself and your business. It should be clear, concise, and most importantly, engaging. In just 30 seconds, you need to be able to explain what your business does, who you are, and why someone should care.

What is the formula for elevator problems? ›

N = mg if the elevator is at rest or moving at constant velocity. N = mg + ma if the elevator has an upward acceleration. N = mg - ma if the elevator has a downward acceleration.

What are the three key things in reframing a problem? ›

Reframing a problem helps you see it as an opportunity, and Seelig offers three techniques for finding innovative solutions:
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Jun 14, 2017

What is the elevator problem paradox? ›

The number of elevator stops going upwards and downwards are the same, but the probability that the next elevator is going up is only 2 in 60. A similar effect can be observed in railway stations where a station near the end of the line will likely have the next train headed for the end of the line.

What affects the speed of an elevator? ›

In layman's terms, the speed is controlled by the motor which works hand-in-hand with the mechanics like the winding drum, steel cables, and counterweight in order to find the most appropriate speed.

What causes elevator misleveling? ›

In most cases, brake issues are what cause misleveling. For example, if the brake linings are worn out, misleveling can be a result. Issues with the brake springs or the brake drum can also cause misleveling. Other common issues include moisture, temperature issues, voltage issues, and overcrowding of an elevator car.

What is the longest elevator wait? ›

The consensus seems to be that 41 hours is the longest we know of someone being stuck in an elevator. And it happened pretty recently.

How can I make my elevator faster? ›

When you get on the elevator, press the "Close Door" button. Often, this button will be two triangles pointing in towards each other. Continue holding the "Close Door" button as you push your floor. In some elevators, this combination will give you an express ride.

Which algorithm could run an elevator efficiently? ›

The standard SCAN algorithm is even known as the elevator algorithm.

What is bad elevator etiquette? ›

Unless you are injured, unable to climb stairs, or carrying heavy objects, you shouldn't take the elevator for one floor. Taking the elevator for two or three floors, especially during busy elevator traffic, is also considered poor etiquette.

What are the unwritten rules in an elevator? ›

7 Rules of Elevator Etiquette
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Apr 15, 2022

Does OSHA regulate elevators? ›

OSHA requires fall protection for elevator work when a fall hazard is present. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Does 2 dings mean an elevator is going down? ›

1 ding on an elevator means it's going up and 2 dings means it's going down.

What does 2 stop elevator mean? ›

- Any elevator with more than two landings. - Any elevator with non-adjacent landings, such as an elevator that only stops at floors one (1) and (3), skipping the second (2nd) floor.

Should an elevator pitch be 30 60 seconds? ›

An elevator pitch is a concise, well-crafted summary of who you are, what you do, and what you can offer. It should be no longer than 30-60 seconds, which is roughly the length of time it would take to deliver it on an elevator ride. An elevator pitch should also be clear, concise, and compelling.

How do you calculate elevator time? ›

The following round trip time (RTT) equation has been very widely used: RTT = 2Htv + (S+1)(T-tv) + 2Ptp (where tv is the one floor cycle time under rated speed; T is the performance time as defined in CIBSE Guide D [27]; P is the average number of in-car passengers; tp is the average passenger transfer time).

What is the G force of an elevator? ›

If you were in an elevator accelerating upwards which, you might experience a force of +2g. And if the elevator was accelerating downwards very quickly, you might actually feel an upwards force of -0.5g. That's what a negative g-force is, when it feels like you are falling up.

What is the formula for elevator capacity? ›

First, determine the elevator safe lifting weight (lbs). Next, gather the formula from above = ELC = LW / 150. Finally, calculate the Elevator Lift Capacity. After inserting the variables and calculating the result, check your answer with the calculator above.

What is 6 step reframing? ›

Six Step Reframing is a process used in Neuro Linguistic Programming through which a problematic behavior is separated from the positive intention of the internal program or 'part' that is responsible for the behavior.

What's the number 1 step in reframing a problem? ›

Take others perspectives

We dive straight into solving the problem without asking for other people's perspectives. So the first step is to recognize it and simply ask for as many different perspectives possible.

What is the 3 step problem-solving model? ›

Your posting should follow the 3-Step Problem-Solving Approach: Stop 1: Problem (Define the problems in the case.) Stop 2: Cause of the Problem (Identify the OB concepts or theories to use to solve the problem.) Stop 3: Recommendation (Explain what you would do to correct the situation.)

What is the elevator pitch theory? ›

What is an elevator pitch and why do I need one? An elevator pitch is a brief (think 30 seconds!) way of introducing yourself, getting across a key point or two, and making a connection with someone. It's called an elevator pitch because it takes roughly the amount of time you'd spend riding an elevator with someone.

What is the elevator theory of operation? ›

A motor at the top of the shaft turns a sheave—essentially a pulley—that raises and lowers cables attached to the cab and a counterweight. Gears connect the motor and sheave in slower systems. Faster elevators are gearless; the sheave is coupled directly.

What is the elevator theory in psychology? ›

The idea to research social conformity in elevators came from a Candid Camera stunt in which a group of individuals are facing the back of an elevator when a new rider enters. Some follow suit, even though the notion of facing the back of a moving elevator is completely at odds with normal circumstances.

How do elevator problems work in physics? ›

This is an application of Newton's second law to the forces felt in an elevator. If you are accelerating upward you feel heavier, and if you are accelerating downward you feel lighter. If the elevator cable broke, you would feel weightless since both you and the elevator would be accelerating downward at the same rate.

How is elevator speed controlled? ›

The elevator speed is regarded as the feedback signal, and the fuzzy proportion integral differential (PID) control of the elevator speed is completed through the deviation and deviation change rate between the ideal speed curve and the ideal speed curve.

Can an elevator moves at constant speed? ›

As the elevator is moving at a constant speed, its kinetic energy is also constant. The gravitational potential energy of the Earth-Elevator system is increasing as the separation between the two objects is increasing.

How many times do elevators get stuck? ›

There are approximately 900,000 elevators in the United States and the odds of getting stuck in an elevator are 1 in every 100,000 elevator ride.

What is the elevator problem architecture? ›

The elevator conundrum is a term used by architects and building design engineers to describe the paradox that whilst elevators enable tall buildings, they also limit the practical height of tall buildings owing to the need to provide more elevators as the occupancy of the building increases proportionately with the ...

What is an irrational fear of elevators called? ›

Claustrophobia (Fear of Enclosed Spaces) Fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia) becomes a phobia when it interferes with your ability to function at work, school, or other daily activities. Common triggers include tunnels, elevators, trains and airplanes.

Why do elevators mess with my equilibrium? ›

Lifts affect your balance system differently to escalators. In closed lifts that you cannot see out of, your eyes and sensors in your body are telling your balance system that you are not moving, but the balance organ in your inner ear can detect that you are moving.

What causes an elevator to stop between floors? ›

The automatic landing system on an elevator controls where the elevator stops at each floor. Whether the elevator system utilizes geared or gearless traction or hydraulic lifting technology, all elevators incorporate a landing system that controls the leveling of the elevator.

Why do elevators skip floors? ›

Getting Around the Superstition

Skipped - the easiest way to get around putting 13 on the floor numbering is simply by skipping it altogether. This is why you'll see elevator panels go from 12 straight to 14.

Why is there no 4 in elevator? ›

All numbers ending with four (4)

In Chinese culture, fourth floor is usually omitted from most elevator fixtures in a Chinese building, this is because the number means "death (死)". It was considered that the number 4 in Putunghua means "sì" while death is "sǐ" and Cantonese means "sei3" while death is "sei2".

What is the longest elevator entrapment? ›

Kively Papajohn of Limassol, Cyprus, was, at the age of 76, trapped in her apartment block lift for six days from 28 December 1987–2 January 1988. She survived the cold and beat dehydration by rationing some fruit, vegetables and bread that she had in her shoppping bag.

What is a good elevator speed? ›

Typical elevator speeds are 200 fpm, 350 fpm, and 500 fpm, although 600 fpm is achievable by at least one manufacturer.

Why do elevators have 2 buttons? ›

Two Call Buttons are used outside the Elevator to determine which Direction you'll be going and to avoid the elevator reach maximum capacity by putting request calls on HOLD by preventing to halt on floors where the person wants to travel an opposite direction.

What is the highest speed of elevator? ›

Currently, the world's fastest elevator is employed in a building in China, and it can reach a speed of 1260 m/min (75.6 km/h). This elevator was supplied by Hitachi Building Systems.

What is the most efficient elevator system? ›

From an energy performance point of view, a traction lift is more energy efficient than a hydraulic lift system.

What type of elevator is most efficient? ›

Because traction elevators use a counterweight to offset the weight of the cab and occupants, the motor doesn't have to move as much weight. This makes traction elevators more energy efficient than hydraulic elevators in higher-rise, heavy-use applications.

Is 2 minutes too long for a elevator pitch? ›

An elevator pitch is a short summary of an idea or project that can be delivered and understood in the time span of an elevator ride (1 to 2 minutes).

What is the elevator rule? ›

If only two people are in the elevator, it's best to stand on opposite sides of the car. Three to four people should gravitate toward each of the corners. Five or more riders should attempt to space themselves out evenly and face forward. Arms and hands should be kept at the sides to avoid contact.

How long are people usually stuck in elevators? ›

If the building is active, the longest you'll probably be stuck for is about half an hour to an hour. Keep pressing the emergency button till help comes. However, if the building is closed, then you may have a longer wait (an hour or two, up to 8-9 hours at most), depending on where the emergency call goes to.

Why is a 30 second elevator pitch important? ›

It communicates who you are, what you're looking for and how you can benefit a company or organization. It's typically about 30 seconds, the time it takes people to ride from the top to the bottom of a building in an elevator.

Is 1 minute too long for an elevator pitch? ›

An elevator pitch is a brief, persuasive speech that you use to spark interest in what your research is about. It helps create interest in your research – and in you. A good elevator pitch should last no longer than a short elevator (lift) ride of no more than one minute.

Can you crawl out of an elevator if you were stuck? ›

If you get stuck in an elevator, avoid trying to climb or crawl out. Waiting for emergency personnel is the best action you can take if you get stuck in an elevator. Climbing out might be dangerous, and attempting it can cause you to panic.

How often do elevators free fall? ›

First of all, elevators never plummet down their shafts. For the past century, elevators have had a backup break that automatically engages when an elevator starts to fall. If all the cables snapped (highly unlikely), the elevator would only fall a few feet before the safety breaks would activate.

What percent of people are scared of elevators? ›

Most elevator phobias are a form of claustrophobia. Worldwide, nearly 4% of the population suffers from this type of anxiety.


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