Van Halen's Genius M&M Master Plan

Have you ever heard the story about how Van Halen used to demand that a bowl of M&Ms be present backstage? The bowl absolutely could not contain any brown M&Ms and if it did, they reserved the right to cancel their show. Sounds like the stuff of urban legend, right?

Actually, it's completely true and it has nothing to do with an eccentric aversion to brown candy. In the early Van Halen years (circa: when David Lee Roth was cool), they used to roll into a venue with nine tractor trailers full of equipment - three times that of most other music groups of the day. This obviously meant more complex lighting rigs and sound systems, more demanding load-bearing requirements, and better overall logistical expertise. The group gave each venue a long list of requirements that their facility had to support before agreeing to play there as well as a list of tasks to complete once they arrived. 

This list contained Article 126, the no-brown M&M directive. If the venue supplied the bowl of brown-less M&Ms, they were clearly thorough and paid attention to the details. On the other hand, brown M&Ms were a red flag and it meant that they automatically audited the entire production - where they inevitably found technical errors. In one case, they actually canceled a show because a closer inspection revealed that the flooring didn't meet the strength requirements for all of the stage gear. See, there's a method to their madness! 

I picked up The Checklist Manifesto after an endorsement from Twitter's Jack Dorsey. The author, Atul Gawande, tells this story about Van Halen almost as an aside in the larger context of the power of checklists. As a surgeon, he talks about how checklists have drastically reduced healthcare mistakes, reduced recovery times, and improved staff morale. He also learns about the principles and testing behind Boeing's highly-refined flight deck checklists. 

If you're building something as logistically absurd as a skyscraper, you had better be extremely organized. You need to have thorough checklists for the tasks and a strong grokking of the dependencies. But with thousands of contractors, it's important to realize that it's entirely unfeasible to make all of the moment-by-moment decisions for all of those workers. There's a tremendous amount of specialized knowledge and expertise at the individual worker level, so it's critical to push the majority of the decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. Gawande illustrates this wonderfully by comparing the U.S. government's response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster (centralized control and decision-making) to that of Wal-Mart (which enabled each region and store to "do the right thing" on their own). 

It's a quick and interesting read. Even if you're not a surgeon, pilot, or rock star, you're bound to glean something applicable to your world.