One of the things I love about the rock music scene is the legends – some apocryphal, some based on fact – that surround many rock stars. One that’s been around a while is the “Brown M&M’s” legend associated with early Van Halen. So I was delighted to come across a piece in Fast Company by Chip and Dan Heath that dug under the surface of this urban rock legend.
A Touring Rock Band Demands Operational Excellence!
Van Halen, like many rock bands, toured extensively and used a tremendous amount of heavy equipment. As an aside, I was amused to see a video clip of the Beatles first trip to the US and notice them using Vox AC 30 amplifiers – that were not even running through a public address system! For the uninitiated, these were early British amplifiers that kicked out a rather measly 30 watts of audio power – each one typically driving a pair of 12 inch loudspeaker. By contrast, a band like Van Halen in more modern times would use multiple 100 watt amplifiers driving banks of loudspeakers, then running through a public address system kicking out thousands of watts driving huge walls of loudspeakers, hanging from the ceilings!
All this gear, together with stage settings, special lighting and effects would need a convoy of 18-wheel tractor trailers to haul from gig to gig. All this equipment meant high technical complexity, demanding a detailed and complex contract with venues and specialist resources.
No Brown M&M’s!
One of the strange articles Van Halen buried in the middle of the contract read,
There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”
When front man (and operational excellence obsessive) David Lee Roth would arrive at a new venue, he’d go backstage to check the M&M bowl. If he saw a brown M&M, he’d know this was a visible indicator that the stage hands and venue specialists were not paying attention to the contract details, and there would be a good chance that other operational errors had been made. This would trigger a line check of the entire production.
What’s Your Equivalent to the Brown M&M’s?
David Lee Roth had come up with a simple indicator to predict the quality of the stage set up for any venue and show. It looked trivial and something you might expect from a rock ‘diva’. But in practice, it was a highly effective way to assure quality. And you can bet that the word quickly spread from gig to gig – so the crews were on their toes, paying attention to all the contract details!
Do you have any indicators that provide assurance of the quality of your operations?