Pancakes and Culture

I had the honor of conducting a culture building session in Osaka, Japan and told the “pancake story” in the opening address. 

My first recognition of culture as that guide which tells me if I am doing something right or wrong was during my very first job interview.

In America, a great number of children spend their summer away from home at camp. I was one of those children—spending every summer swimming, sailing, and enjoying the freedom to just play. And, I dreamed of one day growing up and running my own camp. After college, I was invited to interview for a Director’s position at a camp which was about 5 hours away from Chicago.

When I arrived there, I immediately noticed one thing…all the buildings—cabins, dining halls, bathrooms—were all painted the same color red. It gave you the distinct impression that there was something important about that particular color.

So, late in the day, when I had the chance to talk to the caretaker—the person who watches over the property—I asked him about the color red: “I am curious about the meaning behind the color red which is on all the buildings.”

He looked at me and said: “There is no real meaning…the paint was on sale at the local store so we bought as much as they had. We have been using it ever since.”

I asked: “Do people like it?”

He responded: “You know, they do. The people who come here like consistency—no surprises. They like that nothing really changes. That they can always count on the same things, on traditions.”

I had one more question: “ Well, who painted all these buildings?”

He smiled and said: “Everybody. We all contribute—no matter the job title.”

Later that evening, I met with the Committee that would decide who got the Director’s job. Toward the end of their questions, someone asked me to respond to the following scenario:

“It’s 4:00 in the morning and your cook calls you to say she is sick and cannot come in to make the traditional pancake breakfast that 250 people expect on the first day of camp. What do you do?”

I responded: “I start making pancakes.”

After I started my new job, my boss told me that the other candidates provided answers that included such things as spending money to hire temporary workers to cook…or, postponing the pancake breakfast until the cook returned.

You start making pancakes because it is practical, it’s economical, it’s a tradition, and it is how you contribute.

Now, you may be sitting there saying, but we are a manufacturing company—how does this relate to a camp somewhere in the woods of the United States?

What research has shown us is that this truth is universal—culture comes from people working together toward a common goal…no matter the place or industry.

Culture is how people work together. It guides how we treat and value each other and our work. And, it determines if we will do our best work.

When we are all very clear about what is valued within a group, and we consistently make decisions based on that understanding—we can best meet all the expectations of our customers, our company, and ourselves.