What “no brown M&Ms” means to quality control

I was struck by a story about the rock band Van Halen and their insistence on having all of the brown M&Ms removed from the M&M bowls in the backstage catering. At first glance, it sounds like some vain request. Why would someone want M&Ms yet want the brown ones removed? We all know the different colors all taste the same, so it would seem to serve no other purpose than creating unnecessary work for some unfortunate soul tasked with picking out all the brown ones. As it turns out, however, requesting to have the brown M&Ms removed was a stroke of genius with good reason. Watch this video to hear why…

Brown M&Ms from Van Halen on Vimeo.

If you don’t watch the video, here’s an excerpt of what David Lee Roth says. If you did watch the video, skip the italicized text.

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors—whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. 

The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20 foot spaces, evenly, providing 19 amperes . . .” This kind of thing. And article No. 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” 

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.

This story made me think about the philosophy of leaving nothing to chance when it comes to absolute assurance in quality.

In the case of the company I work for, World 50, providing a high-quality service every single time is paramount. Our members simply expect it of usand they should. Delivering upon it once or even a few times is hard enough, but time and again, without exception, is another matter. I am often in awe of how we are able to consistently do so, but like every organization, there’s always room for improvement and for World 50, we know however good we are, we can never settle and must keep raising the bar.

I suspect that if one of Van Halen’s production companies came to understood the meaning of the “no brown M&Ms” the need to actually remove the brown ones from catering was no longer required. I can still imagine, though, David Lee Roth, as he walked on stage for the pre-concert sound check, saying out loud to the production crew, “Remember, no brown M&Ms! Right?” and their understanding of what he meant: no detail could be left unattended to.

When I look back at instances when we weren’t at our best, when something didn’t go quite right, rarely was it something completely unexpected or out of the blue. Rather, it was almost always something that could have been predicted in advance. That realization begs the question: If we simply ask ourselves, “What could possibly go wrong?” every single time, in advance and without exception, we can probably anticipate and avoidor at least prepare forjust about every conceivable challenge we will encounter. Consistently delivering high quality is simply expecting it of yourself, every time, and doing whatever it takes to make it so, with nothing left to chance.

Next time you and your team are preparing for something bigbe it an event, a meeting, a product launch or whatever pertains to your endeavorsask yourself and your team, “Are there any brown M&Ms?”

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