I learned to make lasagna twenty years ago. Since then, I must have made it hundreds of times, explained the recipe to dozens of friends and perfected my method. I’ve tested many sauces and know what amount of vegetables will not raise objections. I always stock the right shredded cheese in the freezer and never use oven-ready lasagna noodles. I even know how many lasagna noodles are in the packages stocked by our local supermarket – twenty of them.
Now that our children seem to have hit their teenage growth spurts, the lasagna dinner produces a lot of whooping and no leftovers. And there is very little talking and no bickering when we are having it for dinner.
In other words, my lasagna is perfect.
Or so I thought.
During the pandemic lockdowns, our children were happy enough to help with cooking – anything to break the monotony. Lasagna was always one of the favourite projects. I would show and explain the steps, perfected and optimized through experience. The kids would also get to do the fun parts, like playing with lasagna noodles floating in the water. It was a win-win.
One thing that I would not have predicted was that my helpers would have suggestions for improvement…
When you follow the same recipe for a long time, you know it by heart:
- the sequence of steps
- the duration of each step
- what activities can overlap
- the right tools
- the right amounts
- even the right technique for evenly spreading the ingredients over the lasagna noodles
In other words, it becomes a standardized and repeatable process. A process that works every time and produces a predictable result. A result of acceptable quality. Why would anyone think of changing anything?
An established and repeatable process is rarely reviewed and optimized by the actors involved unless a disruption is created by an external event or a new actor.
So was my lasagna-making process really perfect?
Or did I think it was perfect because I didn’t need to think anymore?
The first improvement came from my grown-up daughter who was staying with us during the lockdown.
I have a special stainless steel oven tray with tall sides for the lasagna – learning early on that cheese leaking over the edges is not compatible with fire alarms that have batteries in them.
Since lasagna noodles have a standard size (they come from the same box every time,) I know exactly how many will fit into my tray – four. I make a three-layer lasagna (four layers of noodles and three layers of filling in between). Again, I learned on my second attempt that a taller lasagna is difficult to cut, slides off the plates, is too tall for our lunch containers, and is generally not worth it.
However, a standard box of lasagna noodles has about 20 noodles, so I’m left with 4 extra noodles. Saving them for the next lasagna and always having half-empty boxes seemed dumb, so my solution was different. Since everyone likes the noodle part, I make a double layer of noodles and cheese in the middle. Not at the top, to avoid any cheesy-noodles-sliding-off incidents. The secret was always hidden in the middle and nobody figured it out.
Needless to say, I explained this logic to each of my helpers. There was an extra trick – as some noodles can break in the box, we use them for middle layers, and save four of the most perfect ones for the top layer – aesthetics matter!
My daughter, however, did something I never thought of: she layered the noodles in a different direction. The long side of the noodle along the short side of the over tray. The nerve!
Incredibly, the arrangement fit the tray better. And it created a foundation for a five-noodle layer. Which created a foundation for a bigger lasagna. And as a by-product, eliminated the problem of dried-out and slightly burned sides of the tray that my previous layout didn’t cover.
And I never thought of that. The idea never crossed my mind in twenty years. And I consider myself a business analyst at heart….
You would think that now our lasagna method was indeed perfect. Yet there was one more area for improvement that I was blind to until my husband dropped by the kitchen.
I had no helpers that day – heard lots of excuses about late projects and upcoming exams. The ingredients were all lined up, ready for assembly.
One can create unlimited variations of lasagna by playing with the fillings. We use cooked ground meat, sauteed onion and carrots, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and then top it with tomato sauce and shredded cheese. The spreading process involves dropping bits here and there, spreading them a bot with a spoon, and it all mixes up nicely during baking.
My husband walked in just as I had all the bowls, spoons, and shakers lined up on the counter for the assembly. He looked at me, and then at the bowls, and then asked: “Why don’t you put it all in one bowl, mix it there, and then spread?
After the initial “don’t fix it” reaction, I had to agree it made sense. With everything (except cheese) mixed together, salted and peppered, the spreading process was a breeze and the lasagna looked more even.
Again, why have I never thought of this?
The irony of the situation is that I am always advocating for process improvement, trying different approaches to solving problems, and making things simpler. When I work with clients, I encourage them to review and challenge their current practices and seek opportunities to optimize their processes. Once you start looking, you can usually find a few things that no longer make sense or can be done better.
Why is it then so hard for us to see things that need improvement under our own noses?
Why we are not driven to challenge the status quo unless something or somebody makes us do it? Why do we need external drivers?
Let’s review some of the reasons:
Inertia: Because we are used to it. We develop routines to expend less energy, physical and intellectual. We develop processes to spend fewer resources on doing something over and over.
On the other hand, we need to apply force to change the direction of a moving body. It requires effort to change the habits. It takes up extra energy to slow down, pay attention, think and analyze.
Why bother? Without an obvious reward, inertia wins.
Superiority bias: Because most of us think we are smarter than an average person.
When we develop a certain way of doing things, it’s typical to think that our way is better. The more we are used to our own routines, the more automatic they become. The less energy we spend on thinking, the more a process we are accustomed to feels like the best way to do it. After all, it works well time after time and frees our brains to think of something else while doing familiar tasks.
But it also means we may miss something important because we’ve gotten used to not analyzing what we are doing.
Because no one is asking “Why?”
Risk aversion: Because we like predictability and assured success.
A predictable process yields predictable results, while experimenting involves risk.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Don’t risk – don’t lose. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
A sense of ownership: don’t tell me how to do my job.
When we assume accountability for something – a business function or the cooking duties, we expect respect and trust in return. Trust me to do my best and respect my way of doing it. If there is anything to improve, it is up to me to decide – it is my process, after all. Stay out of my swamp!
But for all the reasons mentioned above, it may be hard to see the big picture and what is wrong with it when you are too close.
When someone without much stake in maintaining the status quo is questioning the process, they are much more likely to recognize what does not make sense.
My daughter, unlikely to fuss with lasagna when she returns to her student flat, had no special interest in improving my lasagna recipe. She simply questioned something that did not make sense to an independent observer. Why was there an empty space on the lasagna tray, while there is a double layer in the lasagna? But it took an external disrupting force to ask the question.
A few lasagnas later, the new process improvements are fully established and become the new standard process. And they’ve taught us all a lesson:
There is usually a way to improve your lasagna if you are open to it.