It seems logical to think that to achieve great changes in specific situations it is necessary to perform great actions and to mobilize a large amount of resources. This perception is heir to the Newton’s third law (Action-Reaction). According to this law, to every action there is always equal and opposite reaction.
However, when dealing with people rather than objects, this law is no longer valid. With people, the Lever Principle is often more useful. As Archimedes explained, with a place to stand, a lever allows us to move a heavy object by exerting only a small force.
How can we apply the Lever Principle to generate great changes in people’s behavior? Here is an actual case.
1. Description of the situation
Barcelona train station of the Catalan Government Railways (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya).
In the hall of the train station there are always two constant flows of people. On one hand, there are people who come to Barcelona from the towns of the metropolitan area. They leave the train, cross the hall and exit the train station through the gate on their right, the exit gate.
On the other hand, there are people who travel from Barcelona to the towns of the metropolitan area. These people come through the gate which is located on their right (the entrance gate), cross the hall and enter the train.
Both the exit and entrance gates have their respective signals indicating that the former must be used to exit the train station and the second must be used to enter. However, it is an ingrained habit to always use the door on the right, so people would follow this rule even if there was any type of signaling.
Finally, I will explain that Barcelona is the second most important economic center of Spain and the second largest city. In addition, the metropolitan area of Barcelona is the sixth most populous one of the European Union.
2. Description of the conflict
The above data give us an idea of the large number of passengers using the railways and passing daily through the hall. This is particularly true in the morning, when thousands of workers arrive to Barcelona. By contrast, the number of people who move out of Barcelona is much smaller.
It is here where the conflict arises.
As shown in the image below, in the morning, during rush hour, the number of people arriving to Barcelona is so great that, in the hall, every time that a train arrives, there are accumulations of people attempting to go out into the street. This results in the mass of passengers invading the entrance gate, which is underutilized at that time. As a result, people who must catch the train have many difficulties to access the train station.
3. Description of the solution
How can this conflict be solved? How can we prevent people from using the entrance gate to exit the train station?
I must admit that, if I did not know the real solution, the first thing I would think would be some type of coercive action, as a security guard. Also, the gates could be expanded, or perhaps the exit and entrance gates could be located at different places…
The answer is not in any of these options. The solution is much simpler (and cheaper). To find the solution we just need a place to stand on which to support the lever. In this case, the place to stand are the doors of the gates.
Normally, the exit and entrance gates of the train station are always open. However, the doors are sometimes locked and to enter or exit people must push them. Anyone who has had to push those doors could explain you that they are exceptionally heavy. Moving the doors of the train station requires considerable effort, so much effort, that everybody avoids it if not necessary.
The solution that the Catalan Government Railways have found (although I cannot confirm if they do it on purpose) is this: they simply close the doors of the entrance gate and left open the exit doors.
Surprisingly, people prefer to queue to have to push the doors and, thus, they stop using the entrance gate to exit the station. Obviously, this means that the few people who at that time come into the train station have to push the doors, but in return, they no longer have to fight a mass of people to access the hall.
The case of the gates of the Barcelona train station is a clear example of how innovation does not always require large investments or spectacular inventions. Often it is only necessary to observe the behavior of people and understand their true motivations. To innovate, we often only need a single place to stand.