• Stephen A. Ruffa

What can we learn from Van Halen about going “lean”?

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

This year marked the passing of a true rock icon: Eddie Van Halen. Fans like myself will forever remember Van Halen’s contributions to music, pop culture, and particularly his groundbreaking guitar playing techniques. He will be truly missed.

I’m also a fan of Van Halen’s approach to assessing business processes. You read that right. Believe it or not, there is a lesson on going lean that we can take from this legendary rock band.

During the band’s heyday I heard a tale about one of its unusual demands while on tour. Apparently the group had a sweet tooth, with a particular affinity for M&M’s. As the story goes, the band buried a clause in its contract stating that a large bowl of these candies had to be placed in the backstage area before each show—with one important stipulation: The bowl could contain absolutely no brown M&M’s. If a single brown M&M was found, the band had the right to cancel the show at the expense of the promoter.

It would be easy to chalk this up to spoiled rock star behavior. But it turns out that wasn’t what this was about. This simple clause had a very important purpose. And that’s where we get our lesson in lean.

It’s not hard to understand how much a successful performance depends on getting right a complex array of activities that are outside the band’s control—like ensuring that lighting, sound systems, and security will all function without a hitch. That’s where this stipulation comes into play. Taking one look at the candy bowl would give the band a quick sense of the facility’s attention to detail. With so much riding on it, did they take care to deal with all of the brown M&M’s? If not, what other important details might they have missed? At a minimum, finding one brown M&M would presumably drive a complete re-check of the entire stage system before the show.

What, then, does this have to do with lean?

Years ago I led a study of continuous improvement practices across the aerospace industry and published some startling conclusions. Despite rigorously applying methods ranging from process automation to lean manufacturing and Six Sigma, most of the factories we visited didn’t achieve the results we expected. How could this be? They had done everything right, it seemed, but for many, their efforts missed the mark.

It turned out that these facilities had missed an important preliminary step. Before their actions could show real benefit, they needed to first address key foundational areas. That’s what those who had really succeeded had shown. Instead of beginning by tackling visible problems, these firms began by addressing the broader sources of variation that caused the problems to occur in the first place.

Determining whether or not a facility had done this, I learned, was fairly easy to check. When reviewing a factory, I typically begin by looking for what are, in essence, its brown M&Ms. Had it completed the basic steps I found to be critical if lean improvements are to come together as intended? Just like Van Halen anticipated, I found that those who missed these brown M&M’s generally ran into problems with their other efforts.

To learn more, go our Resources page to check out the Shingo Prize-winning book, Breaking the Cost Barrier, which describes this study and its findings.

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