The Art of Giving Instructions

By Ron Pereira Published on March 3rd, 2009

So, it would seem that the conversation between cake maker and customer went something like this.

  • Cake Making Employee: Hello, how can I help you?
  • Customer: I would like to order a cake for a going away party this week.
  • Cake Making Employee: What would you like on the cake?
  • Customer: ‘Best Wishes Suzanne’ and underneath that ‘We will miss you.’

Here is what the customer got in return.

Funny and Scary

As funny as this may seem, and who knows if this picture is even authentic, I couldn’t help but think about how many times people misunderstand verbal instructions.

And the scary part is these people could just as easily be the pilot of an airplane or a brain surgeon about to cut your head open.

What to do?

What steps do you think could have been taken to error proof this cake making process?  And do these same steps apply to the doctor and pilot as well?

  1. Ganeshan

    March 4, 2009 - 8:19 am

    The customer could have been asked to write the text on a paper the way he/she wants it to be, at the time of order taking.
    Alternatively, a computer image of the cake along with the text can be shown at the time of order taking to enable the customer to make any changes that he/she wants–which can act as the benchmark for the actual cake manufacturing process.

  2. Adam Zak

    March 4, 2009 - 9:31 am

    Two things. Be more specific with instructions to help the order taker visualize how you want the cake to look. Say: “There will be two lines of text on the cake. The first line will read…the second line will read…” Secondly, validate what was written down. Say: “OK, please read back to me exactly what you’ll be writing on the two lines appearing on the cake. The top line will read…the second line is.”

    Adam Zak

  3. Tom Palmitesta

    March 4, 2009 - 10:46 am

    If the phone is the only way to communicate, then Adam Zak has the solution. What is needed in any occasion is to give an operational description of the requirement, as vividly as possible (that is ‘paint a picture’ so the recipient will visualize what is required). But, no matter how much you try, someone will still interpret it wrong, in my experience.

  4. Adam Zak

    March 4, 2009 - 10:56 am

    I’ve only done this by phone but my wife often buys cakes for our kids’ soccer and lacrosse post-game parties. She walks in to Costo with the inscription clearly PRINTED on a 3 x 5 index card.

    Let’s hope we can get some standard work and poke yoke in place before I need to write out instructions for my tombstone.


  5. Robert

    March 4, 2009 - 1:37 pm

    For how much could be silly, but a form with the different section can be prepared and give to customer to fill it up, so it this way there are not misunderstanding.

  6. Alicia Simmer

    March 5, 2009 - 9:55 am

    This reminds me of an old science olympiad event where one team-mate had to provide specific, written instructions to another teammate for building or creating something. The result sort of became a funny game of written ‘telephone’. Sort of like this cake result …

  7. Mat

    March 16, 2009 - 8:32 pm

    Is it possible to error proof stupidity?

    Unfortunately these days common sense isn’t that “common”…..

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