They’re a staple in lunchboxes, college dorms, and entry level brown bags. We all have our favorites or we may not even like them.

But a PB&J is an American classic.

The Assignment

Children grow up enjoying PB&J sandwiches without thinking what goes into making them – the development process. So, when my oldest daughter was in 5th grade, her assignment was to document the steps involved in making this classic lunchtime treat. As she described her assignment that evening, I remember thinking, “This is great, in 5th grade they are teaching process decomposition, system planning, and activity sequencing.” As the owner of a business performance solutions firm specializing in project management, I was excited to hear about the results of this assignment.

The next day, to the students’ surprise, their teacher produced a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a knife. She asked the students to read their instructions aloud as she assembled each sandwich – based on their precise instructions.

It didn’t take long before the demonstration’s point became amusingly clear. Some of the “sandwiches” involved a full loaf of bread with a full jar of peanut butter and a full jar of jelly stacked on top because the instructions never said to “remove” the bread from the wrapper or “open” the jars.

Effective Communication

Clear instruction and communication is just as relevant to a 5th grade homework assignment as it is to organizations and businesses. Remember, what is intuitively obvious to you (of course you take the bread out of the wrapper and open the jars…), may not be, and often is not, intuitive or obvious to someone else.

Without effective and detailed communication between organizations, businesses, and especially individuals, anyone can wind up holding a loaf of bread with a couple of sealed jars on top. You need to know the final product and articulate the precise steps involved to get you there.

The Lesson

I have delivered numerous presentations, speeches, and training courses on project management and operational performance to Government and commercial organizations. As presenters, many times the examples we choose to illustrate these presentations are based on complex engineering or IT projects – not exactly a relatable topic, depending on your field. As a result, listeners can get lost in the complexity of the example and overlook the importance of the message (…process decomposition, system planning, and activity sequencing…). Then I remembered the PB&J homework assignment and started using this “simplistic” example to better explain the complex processes – It worked!

Because, let’s face it – everyone knows how to make a PB&J sandwich, and now, you will never make another PB&J without thinking about how the overall execution is simple, yet it is so complex to capture its process – So, do you plan better than a 5th Grader?


In 1997, Steve founded Edwards Performance Solutions to provide tailored business services that result in greater operational performance. Implementing proven business processes, methodologies, and emerging technologies Edwards drives mission success for businesses, agencies, and non-profits. Steve focuses on strategies that build relationships and leverage market conditions to promote corporate growth, while holding true to the company vision and fundamental values.