Van Halen’s Canary

by vernsanders on October 14, 2011

The bulk of this post comes from an email I got in June from Dan Lacy, who you can connect with here. I present it here because it is something to think seriously about. Every business, and every ministry, has a critical “number” — a piece of information that tells you whether or not you are in trouble. Van Halen, and David Lee Roth, found a simple, yet effective way to check that critical number every time they went to work. It is something I think everyone should do.

Now here’s Lacy’s email:

Van Halen is an American hard rock bank formed in Pasadena, California in 1972.  The band has been extremely successful with over 100 hits and selling more than 80 million albums worldwide.  It is the 19th best selling band/artist of all time.  In 1999, the RIAA certified their debut album diamond for ten million albums sold in the U.S.

In their heyday, the band became notorious for a clause in its touring contract that demanded a bowl of M&M’s backstage with all of the brown ones removed.  The story is true, confirmed by the former lead singer David Lee Roth.

Van Halen did dozens of shows every year and at each venue, the band would show up with nine 18-wheel semi’s full of gear.  Due to the technical complexity, the band had a very thick and convoluted contract.  Roth himself said it looked like the Chinese Yellow Pages.  A typical article in the contract might say, “There will be 15 electrical sockets evenly spaced every 20 feet, each providing 19 amperes.”

Buried in the contract, was a special clause called Article 126.  It read, “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” So when the Roth would arrive at a new venture, he’d walk backstage and glace at the M&M bowl.  If he saw a brown M&M in the bowl, he’d demand a line check of the entire venue.

Roth was an artist and also an operations expert.  He could not spend hours checking the electrical systems to make sure that the sound and lights functioned correctly (this equipment draws a tremendous amount of power).  He needed a way to assess quickly whether the promoter and stage hands were paying attention and if they had read every word of the contract.  In Roth’s world, a brown M&M was the canary in the coal mine.

Business owners are very much like David Lee Roth, they don’t have the time and energy to dig into every aspect of their business.  But if we set up systems to indicate that we are on the right track, doing the right things on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, the business will perform more consistently.  The problem is that most business owners don’t have the systems in place to drive their organization forward.

When a brown M&M showed up, Roth knew there was a high probability of a problem.  The average small business loses tens of thousands of dollars every year because they don’t have a brown M&M system.

Do you have a critical number? Do you check it regularly? Please let me know by leaving a comment.

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