Human Behaviour, a Printer and a Ream of Paper

Today I went to the large multi-function-printer in the corner of the office expecting to pick up some printing that I’d just sent to it.

(You might be wondering what I was doing printing, but that’s a question for another day.)

I was expecting to be greeted by a set of pages on the side of the printer, but instead I was greeted by a red-light and a message on the screen.

The message told me in very clear terms that the printer was out of paper. This particular printer has four trays, three of which are dedicated to the type of A4 paper that I wanted to use, all three of these trays were empty.

Being a good office citizen I opened the cupboard next to the printer where the spare paper is stored. Having open the cupboard I was accosted by a sight I’ve seen in every office I’ve ever worked in. Instead of the cupboard containing full reams of paper it was littered with ripped open paper wrappings containing loose collections of paper. Some of these collections had barely 50 sheets in them, some a 100 sheets, but all of them less than half a ream of paper. There were so many bits of reams that I couldn’t see the full reams.

Most home printers only take a few sheets of paper, but for some years now, decades even, designers of office printers have understood something quite basic. These design geniuses have understood that the basic design requirement for a printer tray is that it takes a ream of paper. I don’t think I’ve seen a paper tray that takes part of a ream for a very, very long time. Yet, despite this being obvious to the designers of printer trays it’s clearly not obvious to the users of printer trays. What could be simpler:

  • Open paper tray
  • Remove ream of paper from cupboard
  • Remove wrapping from ream of paper
  • Put full ream of paper in paper tray
  • Close paper tray
  • Dispose of wrapping

Instead people prefer, for some reason, a different process:

  • Open paper tray
  • Remove ream of paper from cupboard
  • Open wrapping covering ream of paper
  • Remove a handful of paper from wrapping
  • Place this portion of paper into paper tray
  • Place partial ream of paper back into cupboard
  • Close paper tray

The only logical conclusions I can think of for this behaviour are as follows:

  • People haven’t understood, even after all this time, that the paper tray can take a full ream of paper.
  • Disposing of the paper wrapping around a ream of paper requires such special skills that this step is to be avoided. Possible, but I’ve not come across it.

I wonder what the designers of paper trays think about this situation. They’ve done the design work, they’ve created an optimised solution, and yet people prefer to work in a way that creates extra work.

This silly little example shows to me the difficulty of adjusting human behaviour. Even when there is an obviously simpler way of doing things we prefer to follow the tried and trusted path. We prefer to put too little paper in the printer because we are afraid that putting too much in it might break it. This is just a tiny example, but there is evidence of this type of behaviour everywhere you look. The challenge that many organisations face is that these tiny examples scale up into huge areas of inefficiency.

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