How a Lemon Cake Revealed Millions of Dollars of Waste at an Investment Company

By Jeanine Hage - March, 2019


The indicators of success in business endeavors are sometimes found in the most unexpected places. In this case, a simple mix of dough, sugar, and icing accurately pointed out to a group of executives and board members the probability of success for an ambitious technological initiative.

I was called in by an international investment company with offices around the globe to manage a global sales automation project where divisions across multiple continents would use a single platform. As many of these initiatives go, the project ran on a multi-million-dollar budget with strict deadlines.

Good luck with that, is probably what some of you are thinking as you read the words “global,” “sales,” and “single platform.” Since some of you are probably curious to know how this project turned out and considering skipping to the end of this article, allow me to save you a little time and effort. It was laborious! Not for the strategic, operational, or technical reasons you might be assuming. The reasons were found in a Wednesday Lemon Cake.

Monday A.M.: I flew in to a beautiful city open office space to ensure that collaboration on the initiative between the global divisions were taking place optimally. I was received in a friendly environment located in the heart of the business district. In a big room with two rows of workstations on either side, I was shown to a desk on the left side.

Wednesday A.M.: Upon my arrival at the office, I noticed a delicious-looking homemade lemon cake sitting on top of the supply cabinet. I smiled as I recalled how in my home office we would also bring homemade goodies in and place them on the kitchen counter for all to enjoy.

Wednesday P.M. (just after lunch): I was tempted to take a piece of the lemon cake, but I opted not to. Little did I know that in doing so I avoided what would have amounted to an ‘international incident.’

A few hours later: I was kindly invited by two ladies sitting across from me on the right side of the office to go sightseeing. After a lovely stroll in town and a delicious supper at a local restaurant, one of them said the most intriguing thing. “Do not mention this outing of ours at the office tomorrow. We are not supposed to mix.”

Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, she continued, “The people from the opposite sides of the office do not interact with each other. I noticed that you did not take a piece of the cake today, nor did I offer you one. Every Wednesday, one side of the office brings a cake meant for that side alone. Next Wednesday, it is the left side’s turn to bring in cake. We are not supposed to touch the other side’s cake.”

Friday P.M.: Now back from my travels and sitting in the office of the client’s top executive, I broke the news to her, “Your cross-Atlantic project will not succeed, and the key indicator for this is the Wednesday cake.”

If an initiative is soaring at your organization, look beyond the charts and reports to see if it will succeed -- take a walk around the office and look for your lemon cake!