Monday, 24 November 2014

Human factors and the missing suitcase (by M Moneypenny)

The 2014 ASPiH conference took place at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham. The conference hotel was located a stone's throw away. The free Wi-fi, clean rooms and provision to print out your boarding cards made staying at this award-winning establishment a nice experience. Until the missing suitcase that is…

A timeline of events

Like many hotels, the Orchard Hotel offered a luggage storage facility. I handed in my suitcase and was given a small paper tab, the number on this matched the tag placed on my luggage. For additional security my name was written on the luggage tag. (Fig. 1)

Fig 1: Ironic luggage tag

The suitcase was then taken to a storage area, to be collected at the end of the conference. So far, so normal…

At the end of the conference I wandered over to the hotel reception, luggage tab in hand and was slightly dismayed to find that all the suitcases had been placed in the hotel lobby. "Not great security", I thought. My dismay turned into slight panic when I couldn't find my suitcase amongst the twenty or so that were left. Where was my "Very Important Package"? I asked the front of house manager, who was standing at reception, and she went off to look for it. After about ten minutes she returned to tell me that those were all the suitcases from the conference and was I sure it wasn't there? I was sure… At this stage there was only one suitcase left (which bore only fleeting resemblance to mine) and (by looking inside it) the front of house manager was able to identify the owner.

Fig 2: @TheRealAlMay springs into action
With the power of social media (Fig 2; thanks for the RTs) and Google, we were able to obtain contact details of the supposed lapse-maker. By the time I touched-down in Scotland there was an apologetic email in my inbox. The other person had a similar suitcase at home and had been distracted looking for their coat. They hadn't realised they had the wrong suitcase until they opened it up to do the washing… (No comment).

After a couple of unreturned phone calls I managed to speak to the general manager (GM) of the hotel the next day, to find out how they would endeavour to return the suitcase to me. To my surprise the GM told me that had this been their "fault" they would've made sure a courier had picked it up and returned it to me, but because it wasn't their responsibility they would be willing to pay 50% of the cost. I did my best to explain that if the suitcase had not been placed in the foyer (and what was the point of the luggage tag system anyway?) then it wouldn't have been taken in error. After a polite discussion the GM asked me to leave it with him.

Thankfully my suitcase (and the laptop inside) arrived the next day and I could get back to writing my MD, blog, etc.

Human factors

  1. The luggage tag system I: This is a relatively robust system if the "rules" are followed. You get your tab, you go back with your tab, hand it to the receptionist and tell them your name (as an additional check) and he/she gets your suitcase, having checked the tab and your name with the tag.
  2. The luggage tag system II: This is a very slow system. Especially when over 200 delegates want to pick up their luggage at the same time, which is why the luggage was placed in the foyer for people to "pick your own".
  3. The lapse: It's the end of a long (but engaging) day, you want to catch the train and get back to your family. There is a bit of a problem with finding your coat but you've got your suitcase and you're rushing out to the taxi. (Would the error pass Reason's substitution test? It sure would.)
  4. Blaming the sharp end: The hotel general manager was very keen to point out that this person had walked off with my suitcase and that they (the hotel) was not at fault. Blaming the person at the sharp end is a symptom of poor organisational culture.

Lessons learned

My suitcase now has a very distinctive red and white ribbon to make it look more "unique". Unfortunately this probably also makes it stand out more for opportunistic thieves…..


  1. Al Ross comments:
    This is a fairly classic Hollnagelian Efficiency- Thoroughness Trade-Off that on this occasion went wrong.
    I left the Orchard a day early so I got System I: simple and safe. But the next day presumably there would have been many people in a line waiting for bags so they traded this for an efficient System II.

    The key HF trick is to ask yourself about the other side of the trade-off? Suppose you (and others) were cutting it a bit fine for trains home; and the manager was sticking religiously to System I (thorough). No matter people's exhortations to dispense with the rules and dump all the bags out front for people to locate themselves, he/she says ‘this could lead to security problems’/ ‘guests have very important materials entrusted’ etc. etc.
    You may now be writing a blog about the need to be creative with the rules (having got home v late, with suitcase, but perhaps after a nightmare journey). In fact, after your experience, the manager is probably telling all staff right now that they must ‘on no account dispense with the tag system’, hence the next HF problem is created.....
    p.s. did they do your washing for you?

  2. Absolutely. Didn't want to come up with facile "this is what should've happened" hindsight-happy solutions. Personally, I would've placed all the suitcases in the foyer (therefore overcome the problem of them being placed in a storage area some distance away), cordoned them off (there was a "semi-cordon" around them) and then tasked a member of staff with checking tabs and tags, with perhaps two or three members of staff tasked at the peak demand half-hour or so…. But then I don't know how many staff members are available and no doubt additional problems would be created… However, if they had dispensed with the tab/tag system at the beginning and told people that "all the bags will be in the foyer, please make sure you don't go home with the wrong one" then the false sense of security from the tab/tag system might not have helped with the error???
    Thanks for your thoughts! (Can't believe you admitted leaving a day early….)
    P.S. No…. :-)