The Red Bead Experiment

**Scattered across almost any consultant’s PowerPoint decks will be several quotes. There’s the infamous, “If we asked what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse,” and “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and the one I’ll be talking a bit about today is, “A bad system beats a good person every time.”

That last quote is by Edward Deming, who, if you aren’t super familiar with him, is responsible for the birth of Lean worldwide. He was a management consultant who went to Japan during the rebuilding efforts and helped numerous industries rebuild and dominate the markets in the decades after.

At the core of his teaching was the idea that quality is critical to long-term success, and the system or process is what creates quality. He advised that everyone be attentive to the processes and controls in place where they work and relentlessly improve them for quality. Sadly, most organizations in the US did not get that message.

Which brings me to a little activity I’m aware of that I wanted to write about. It’s called the Red Bead Experiment.

Here’s how it works: There is a bin full of beads in two colors, white and red. There are a lot more white beads than red. The facilitator will instigate a contest amongst management to come up and scoop up beads using a specific scoop and see who can get the fewest red beads possible. The scoop has little dimples to capture the same number of beads each time.

So managers hop on up and scoop the beads. As the beads settle into their place on the scoop, there will be some white and red beads. The manager’s score is tallied, and the next comes up, and so on.

Now, what happens is that everyone winds up with red beads, and nobody can stop it. Some have more, some have less, but everyone has them. The question is, how do you avoid scooping up the red beads?

Some folks might devise a clever way to add another filter or try to shake off beads carefully and scoop again. And this is where we get to the point of this little exercise: Fixing things at the end is expensive, and preventing them isn’t.

What if we avoided putting red beads in the bin in the first place?

This moment is where the insight exists in the little exercise that Deming spent his life trying to teach. Build quality first.

I’ve looked for a kit to run this little activity, but they’re outrageously expensive for something so simple. That means that I have to find other ways to impress upon folks how to build quality into what they do instead of creating many more inspection and correction steps.

With one software team, I suggested they adopt automated testing and TDD. They were adamant that developers shouldn’t test things. So I said that was fine, but when there is an outage in the middle of the night, it will be well-earned and supported by the team.

They reconsidered. As they got over the adjustment of building with quality as a primary concern, they saw other things change. They sped up! This consequence makes sense, but for most people, it’s unintuitive. They were able to go faster because they could always take advantage of a safe and working starting point. They were always aware of what was and wasn’t working because only their small immediate change was a suspect since everything else worked.

They shipped two products without any defects. Ever. They could refactor freely to better designs and emerging changes because they always knew whether things were working. They never had to guess, hope, or have faith that it worked because they had a system to prove it.

They eliminated the red beads before they got into the bin.

So, here’s the challenge: look at how things work around you and see how many steps in your process exist to inspect for problems and fix them afterward. Take a guess at how much time and money those steps cost and how much you’d save if you never did them again. In my experience, this one exercise is worth over six figures of savings. Did I mention you’ll speed up too?

Don’t put red beads into the bin. Build quality in.