A Business Lesson from Van Halen

I recently read a very good article by Dan Heath and Chip Heath, published at www.fastcompany.com [see the full article here].  And to give credit where credit is due, I also used the title of their article as the title for this posting.  The entire article is worth reading and I encourage you to read it.  But let me give you the highlights here.

If you grew up during the 80’s, you probably heard of the notorious “Van Halen M&Ms story”.  Let me quote from the article:


“In its 1980s heyday, the band became notorious for a clause in its touring contract that demanded a bowl of M&Ms backstage, but with all the brown ones removed. The story is true – confirmed by former lead singer David Lee Roth himself – and it became the perfect, appalling symbol of rock-star-diva behavior.

Get ready to reverse your perception.  Van Halen did dozens of shows every year, and at each venue, the band would show up with nine 18-wheelers full of gear.  Because of the technical complexity, the band’s standard contract with venues was thick and convoluted.  Roth, in his inimitable way, said in his autobiography that it read “like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages.”  A typical “article” in the contract might say, “There will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20-foot spaces, evenly, providing 19 amperes.”

Van Halen buried a special clause in the middle of the contract.  It was called Article 126.  It read, “There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”  So when Roth would arrive at a new venue, he’d walk backstage and glance at the M&M bowl.  If he saw a brown M&M, he’d demand a line check of the entire production.  “Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error,” he wrote.  “They didn’t read the contract.  Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show.”

In other words, Roth was no diva.  He was an operations expert.  He couldn’t spend hours every night checking the amperage of each socket.  He needed a way to assess quickly whether the stagehands at each venue were paying attention — whether they had read every word of the contract and taken it seriously.  In Roth’s world, a brown M&M was the canary in the coal mine*.

Like Roth, none of us has the time and energy to dig into every aspect of our businesses.  But, if we’re smart, we won’t need to.  What if we could rig up a system where problems would announce themselves before they arrived?  That may sound like wishful thinking, but notice that’s exactly what Roth achieved.  Surely, you won’t be outwitted by the guy who sang “Hot for Teacher.”

Where’s the brown M&M in your business?”

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