For whom was the sticker made?

November 7, 2011

A couple of days ago, as I was grabbing my bag out of the overhead compartment on the quite small plane I had taken between Newark and Raleigh/Durham, I noticed a sticker in the back of the compartment. Most planes I have flown with were bigger and I’m just not tall enough to see that far in so I don’t know if the sticker is always there but in this plane it was at least. The picture I managed to take is quite blurry but what it says is: “MAX. CAPACITY 60 LBS/27 KG”.

Great, they don’t want the compartment to fall down on the head of some poor schmuck sitting under it.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I immediately wondered why they put that sticker there. What is the difference between having that sticker and not having that sticker?

Let’s pretend you’re a passenger and you are the first one to put something in the overhead compartment and you actually manage to see the sticker. What goes through your mind? Probably nothing much. Most of us have a bag that weighs less than 10kg but that doesn’t really matter because we don’t know what it weighs anyway. So you put your bag up there. Next person comes along. If she can still se the sticker after you’ve put your bag in there, what will she think? Probably that her bag is lighter than the limit. She has no idea how much your bag weighs and she most certainly won’t take it out and try to estimate the combined weight so she puts her bag in there as well. If there’s still any room up there, no one will see the sticker because of the bags and jackets already there and they’ll keep loading their bags.

Let’s pretend that the airplane manufacturer put the sticker there because they were concerned for the safety of the passengers. Jerry Weinberg uses the expression that you should eat your own dog food, meaning that you should try your own products for yourself before exposing them to your customers. If the manufacturer had actually tried to board the plane and recorded how the sticker changed their behavior they would probably have come up with zero.

But what if the sticker wasn’t even the manufacturer’s idea. What if it is some government agency that is looking out for us, the passengers? Did they make a rule that says that the manufacturer must make sure that no one gets an overhead compartment in their head? Did they express it in such a way that no one will get an overhead compartment in their head? They might have said that the manufacturer is liable for informing the passengers about the maximum load. But they certainly did not say that the manufacturer is liable for making sure no one gets hurt. Because if they did, that sticker would not have been there.

Now I don’t know who decided that there should be a sticker there and for whom it was made and
Therefore, I send to know
for whom the sticker was made,
it wasn’t for me.

Enough of paraphrasing John Donne and back to the game. If the purpose of the sticker truly is to save people from getting an overhead compartment in the head and not just a way of keeping the manufacturer out of court when someone has been hurt, then I consider it to be an example of poor problem solving and I’m more interested in good problem solving so I’m asking you, dear reader:

What would you have done to prevent people from overloading the overhead compartment?

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