The Guardian Angel is in the Details

I just read a fantastic article in Fast Company last night about creating systems within your organization which allow for spot-checking and quality control. All good stuff, and usually pretty dry stuff at that. I find that Chip & Dan Heath’s monthly articles are usually a good read, but whenever you can relate it back to David Lee Roth of Van Halen to illustrate your point, well… you’ll always have this reader’s attention. Below is s an excerpt from the March 2010 issue of Fast Company:

…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 it’s exactly what Roth achieved. Surely, you won’t be outwitted by the guy who sang “Hot for Teacher.”

What I love is how applicable this is to what we do here at MSLK, whether we’re handling a large web design project, a packaging assignment, or anything else that involves coordinating teams to produce the end result. Because we are often required to write out detailed notes to ensure that our designs are executed correctly, adding in a “Brown M&Ms” type clause would surely help us to quickly spot errors quickly… saving time & money.

Thanks, Diamond Dave!