Saturday, February 20, 2010

Van Halen: Operations Experts

I'm reading Atul Gawande's latest book, The Checklist Manifesto. It's about how checklists have enabled incredibly complex tasks, like flying airplanes, and how they've improved results in other tasks, like surgery.

Checlists are essentially SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures). And they suffer the same flaw. It is easy to skip a step or mis-perform an action. If a mistake happens when you're following a checklist it can be very hard to catch.

Turns out  David Lee Roth had thought of that already — and figured out a solution.

When Van Halen was touring in the 1980's they had a massive checklist. It was over 100 pages long. They toured with a huge stage set, way bigger than most rock acts. The primary purpose of the checklist was to tell each stadium's contractor what to put where. Stage microphones here. Amplifiers there. The case of Aqua Net over there. Etc. Problem is, on such a tight rock and roll schedule, what with being drunk most of the time and carrying on, how could they tell if their instructions were followed?

Roth, the lead singer, would slip an item in the check list. Deep inside, buried among the tasks, somewhere on page 55 or so, would be Article 126: "There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation."

When he arrived at the show he'd check for the bowl of M&M's. If it had brown ones he'd demand the contractors review the entire checklist.

It's not a foolproof fix, of course. But as far as quick visual cues I think it's kind of brilliant. A trick worth borrowing.

It reminds me of the wise words of Homer Simpson. "Rock stars. Is there anything they don't know?"

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