Some things—like pancakes—you pretty much have to finish once you start them

Would you rather have five half-cooked pancakes or two good ones?

Some things—like pancakes—you pretty much have to finish once you start them
Photo by Mae Mu / Unsplash

Do this with me:

  1. Cook the first half of a pancake.
  2. Next, DO NOT flip it.
  3. Instead, set it to the side and immediately start the first half of another pancake.
  4. Continue until you have a stack of five half-cooked pancakes. They should be crispy and fluffy on one side, oozing and dripping raw batter on the other.

Oops. We didn't make a meal—we made a disaster.

The parable of the 10x superstar pancake-maker

I’ve met certain busy, expert-level cooks who spend a great deal of time making only the first halves of a whole lot of pancakes. Nobody gets fed, the food goes to waste, but you gotta see how efficient they are. How fast they move. Their bias towards action. Look at them. A flow state. There is always a pancake cooking, so they must be great at this. And the incredible variety of pancakes their menu offers! What wide-ranging value their pancakes will certainly have, if they ever manage to finish a single god damned flapjack!

A framework for pancake evaluation

What’s the best condition for a pancake to be in? My preferences are:

  1. Best—cooked perfectly, waiting for a human being to grab it and chow down.
  2. Strongly OK—batter ready to go, in a bowl, next to a hot griddle.
  3. Worst—having a pancake-in-progress, one that's started cooking, but not finished. It’s easily interruptible, delicate, a liability if you wander away from the cooking surface.

Try this. Put on your continuous improvement goggles, go look for work that has been started but not finished. You will find it everywhere. Anywhere you see it, let it be as much cause for concern as that stack of half-cooked pancakes.

Of course, your most complicated work isn’t as simple as making pancakes. Here's why:

  • Given a pancake-in-progress, you can pretty easily guess how far along it is. Pour, one side, flip, the other, serve.
  • And given a nuanced, exploratory task, everyone believes/reports the activity is 85% complete... but its actual status can be super difficult to determine. Plus, everybody is too busy starting all these other projects to quite finish this one.

It’s enough to put you off your breakfast.