David Lee Roth and the Parable of the Brown M&M’s

Here’s a story that is brilliant in its insight and simplicity. I read it in The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

Van Halen wanted no brown M&M's

David Lee Roth (Van Halen) has an obscure demand in his contract for his concerts.  He wants/demands a bowl of M&M’s backstage, with no brown M & M’s in the bowl:  “with every single brown candy removed, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation to the band.”  At least once, he followed through on his threat.

At first glance, this sounds like a typical over-the-top demand from a rock star too full of himself.  But, in fact, it is a brilliant demand.  The contract is full of very important issues – the strength of the stage, the quality of the wiring, and much more.  People can get hurt when tasks are done poorly or not completed in a big stage show such as his.

Said Roth:

“When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl, well, we’d line check the entire production.  Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error…Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.” The mistakes could be life threatening.

This reminds me of a quote from Heb Kelleher (I’m sorry – I don’t remember which book I read it in).  It went something like this:  “if the rest rooms on our planes are not clean, then the passengers think that the engines might not be well-maintained.”

The lesson:  Sweat the big stuff.  And, have a check on something small to make sure the big stuff is handled well.

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