The pancake experiment

Solving the problem of how to make the best pancakes

I recently came across this great pancake analogy by Eleisha Hawkins (pictured), from Statistics New Zealand’s Enterprise Programme Office.

Having been on maternity leave for the past 6 months, where I found I had a real love of baking (especially eating my baking!), I wanted to incorporate that love for food in to my work. So what better way than to draw an analogy from pancakes? The process for making pancakes basically says… sift flour and salt; add an egg, mix, gradually beat in milk. Chill for an hour. I understood this recipe to be the most trusted, reliable pancake recipe because it came from the staple of any kiwi kitchen: The Edmonds cookbook. But it takes so long! Who has an hour to sit and wait for pancakes to ‘chill’? Especially after a sleepless night with a new-born in the house! 
So, I removed the hour chilling time, and of course, they turn out tasting similar to what I imagine a doorstop would taste like, with the ability to serve the same purpose. This is when I decided it was time to find an alternative recipe. There is not only ONE pancake recipe out there after all.

My criteria were something that would make my food taste that little bit better, AND improve the process of making them (faster and/or more fun). I could have tried to modify the Edmonds recipe e.g. adding baking powder to make them slightly fluffier, but this wouldn’t fix my problem of having to wait an hour before I could eat them! I was on the hunt for a “fluffy pancake recipe”, so I referred to the ever-helpful Google. This alternative recipe needed to be a drastic improvement on the original recipe (or my husband may go looking for his pancakes elsewhere!). It took courage (effort, time, and acceptance that it may not work) to take the risk of trying another recipe. 



If my pancakes had always tasted great, and the time hadn’t been an issue for me personally, would I have still been driven to find a better recipe? What if I was paid for the time to make these pancakes, I guess I really wouldn’t have been driven to change the recipe then! But, if I was selling these pancakes and had to pay someone else for their time to make them, well that would be an incentive to figure out how to make them faster. Then I could move these fabulous pancake makers on to an even more exciting and interesting project.

My Google search found Nigella’s recipe for “Fluffy American Pancakes”. While it used more ingredients, so clearly had more upfront costs, the total preparation time drastically improved, which resulted in a massive cost saving when I looked at total costs. This is because the recipe said ‘put all the ingredients into the blender and blitz’. No waiting, just cook. I loved the sound of that, so was willing to risk it. The end result – the pancakes were amazing! At the time I probably said they were ‘perfect’ (recall, I was sleep deprived!). 


I had optimised pancake making, and furthermore, I had done this without having to come up with an innovative approach myself (although that could have been fun too!). I had made improvements I hadn’t even realised possible when I started my endeavour – no more sifting, no more gradual mixing in ingredients! There are probably still adjustments that could be made to make them even better … and I can continue to test those small improvements. But for now, I have made a fundamental shift in my production of pancakes. 



Eleisha's story is a great reminder that sometimes it is not enough to simply tinker with an existing process. Instead a fundamental process redesign may be required. This is often referred to as a breakthrough or a stepped change.

A couple of words of caution.

Don't simply replace a current process for the sake of change. That is the kind of change that people resist, and rightly so. We must be very clear about the definition of better so that we can prove that it is really without doubt a better process

Ensure that the people who work in the current process are involved in the redesign of the improved process. They need to make the new process work and their intimate knowlege, support and ownership is a critical success factor.

Eleisha describes a classic problem-solving story and she cleverly mixes a number of learning ingredients into her pancake experiment. “BETTER pancakes” was well defined as a better tasting pancake plus a faster and more fun process to make them.

Without this crucial first step of determining “what BETTER looks like”, it would have been impossible to know (verify) that the new process (recipe) is in fact better than the existing one.

After testing the new recipe against her clearly stated improvement criteria, Eleisha could confirm that it was better than her original recipe because she was able to verify that it did taste amazing and the process to make them was in fact significantly faster. It didn’t matter that the cost was slightly higher, because cost was not part of the upfront definition of improvement. I’m assuming the new recipe has now become her family’s standard pancake recipe.

Now, let’s say we redefine our better pancake as a fail-proof pancake that always tastes great but it has to be prepared by hand (no electrical appliance is available) and must cost at least 10% less. Obviously we’ll have to get back into experiment mode and maybe even try variations of the original recipe to find a new best solution. The trusty PDCA cycle will serve us well as we Plan, Do and Check to confirm (based on agreed criteria) that we have found a better recipe. We will then Act, by adopting the new improved recipe as our new recipe (standard). And so the PDCA cycle repeats itself... a never-ending cycle as we strive for every day, everywhere improvement by everyone.

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