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4 Lessons Learned from a Bag of M&M's

Did you know that M&M’s is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year?

I’ve had a special relationship with M&M’s over the past decade. I have bought hundreds of bags of them to use in an exercise I facilitate while teaching quality improvement. As part of my workshop called The Power of CARE™ I use them to illustrate a point about data’s relationship with improvement.

Like most folks who educate on improvement, I make the case that you can’t make improvements without data. It doesn’t matter if it’s a single, small, data point or you need a PhD in statistics to analyze and understand the data, you can’t make improvements without knowing your numbers.

I believe when it come the numbers -- the data -- there are three sets.

There is:

  1. What you THINK is going on

  2. What is ACTUALLY going on, and…

  3. What is SUPPOSE to be going on.

In a perfect world, all of these three sets of numbers would be the same. But none of us lives in that world.

So, the differences in these three sets of numbers is where the room for improvement comes into play. It is our capacity to be better. Until we look at the numbers, we don’t have an accurate idea of where we need the most improvement. Furthermore, unless we continue to look at the data, we do not have an accurate picture of whether our strategies and interventions are working. Improvement requires measurement and analysis. Continuous improvement requires continuous measurement and analysis.


I’ve done this exercise countless times. And I use it in part because M&M’s are a universal experience in America. I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t eaten an M&M. I had one woman who tried to say she hadn’t. I was skeptical, so I probed.

“Were you born in America?“


“So why do you think you’ve never had an M&M?”

“I don’t like them.”

“So, if you have never had one, how do you know you don’t like them?”

“Well…..I guess I have had them at least once.”


I have never met a person who has never had an M&M.

[UPDATE]; Over the summer, my streak was broken. I had a participant in one of my sessions who is deathly allergic to nuts. And since even the plain M & M's are made in a factory that also processes nut products, she has never had the candy in her life. So i guess I must now say this is a "semi" universal experience.

This [semi] universal experience means that now I can use my metaphor to its fullest. This bag of M&Ms now represents so many other things in their lives. When we are done, they have a better understanding of the use of data in quality improvement. And they will there after never look at a bag of M&M’s the same again.

And this is how I use M&M’s to illustrate my point. But I’m not going to talk about that exercise here. You clicked this link to read about my thoughts on lessons from an M&M’s bag.


The Brown Ones

Do you remember when there were two browns? Some might have called the lighter ones tan, but where I grew up, it was the dark brown ones and the light brown ones.

That being the case, when we go through the exercise, I usually have people who overestimate the number of brown M&M’s they expect to find in the bag. When we do step one – stating what we THINK is going on – and from memory participants predict the percentage of the different colors, people tend to give the highest percentage to browns. Maybe it’s the Wedding Planner effect, where folks only eat the brown ones out of an erroneous belief that they have more chocolate and less artificial color. (Forgive me if you don’t know that scene.)

With science and reason throughout history, what people believed turned out to be false. So I like to keep an open mind to all perspectives and learn and become more fully realized as a person. I just feel we're never going to know what the full picture is. -- Conor Oberst, American singer-songwriter

The lesson learned here is that we have to remember our history, but we must also make sure that our judgment is not erroneously impacted and influenced by our own personal history and biased perspective.

The Red Ones

Who remembers when there were red ones and then they stopped making them and then they had red ones again. Many of us know the reason why. Or think we do.

When red food coloring was seen as a problem, red M&M’s were seen as a problem. The company could have tried to educate the public that they didn’t use the offending red food coloring and never stop the production of red ones. However, there was such a negative connotation to red anything, M&M’s saw it as more prudent to switch to orange.

Part of the happiness of life consists not in fighting battles, but in avoiding them. A masterly retreat is in itself a victory. -- Norman Vincent Peale

The lesson learned here is that sometimes you get caught up in the fray and scandal that is not even your own making. When you mess up, fess up. That is a given. Yet, even when you don’t personally mess up, if you run the risk of being tainted by association, you have to take action. Sometimes it might require a full retreat from a relationship – in this case, a relationship with red -- and a period of time, not only to remedy the situation, but for memories to fade. Know which battles to fight.

The Blue Ones

I remember the fanfare over the choosing of a new color for M&M’s. Do you? Do you remember who chose the new color? You did. Well maybe not you, but the consumers did.

M&M’s had a contest and they asked consumers to vote on the new color. And what was the winner? Blue. This is an example of a brand asking for increased communication with and input from its customers. It’s also a self-administered test that the brand must not fail.

When blue won, it was then up to the company to make sure that the customers felt they had been heard. After the addition of blue, when someone opened a bag of M&M’s – especially if they voted for blue – they’d better see a lot of blues.

Companies and their brands need to reach out and speak directly to consumers, to honor their values, and to form meaningful relationships with them. -- Simon Mainwaring

The lesson learned here is that brands need to continue to have two way conversations with their customers. And don’t just listen. Hear what they say. And when you take their advice, make sure you do a good job of showing them that you put their input into action.

The Green Ones

Now this one is the most controversial. Who remembers what they used to say about the green M&M’s when you were a kid? I usually have at least one person in each session who knows. Usually they have that smile that says, “I know, but I’m not sure I want to say it in front of my co-workers.” That’s because it has a little to do with sex. (It’s even more fun when I’m at a church, then I can use my statistic about the correlation between marital sex and regular church attendance.)

It is both regional and generational, so not everyone is aware, but many know that the green ones meant horny. The horny green M&M’s were the stuff of legend in a middle school. If you ate them, that meant you would be horny, or that you were already horny.

Now I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling, some Generation X, marketing executive within the company knew about the legend of the horny green M&M’s and decided to run with it. Why do I have my suspicions?

Which was the first girl M&M?

The green one.

And she was sexy, with her red lips and her white go-go boots. And soon after there was a campaign where they declared that “green was the new color of love” and they even had large bags of just green M&M’s around Valentine’s Day.

[UPDATE]: I came across this article from Mental Floss Magazine. which says, "In response to urban legend that some ingredient in the green M&Ms makes them aphrodisiacs, Mars decided to make the Green M&M character a vampy flirt."My suspicions have been vindicated in print!

If you are in business long enough, your customers will begin to define you and your brand for themselves, independent of your vision. They will take what you have created and 'tweak' it in some way. To maintain your relationship with your customers, you must decide to 'co-create' with them. -- Nadine Owens Burton

The lesson learned here is that no matter what you create, after a while, your customers will become co-creators with you. They may modify your brand, they may even modify your product or service itself. You can either proceed kicking and screaming against their input, and rail at their changing what you had planned; or if you want to continue the relationship – and making money – you can work with them and make something that is agreeable to you both. When it comes to the product or services themselves, this may even mean making changes to the product, or how services are delivered.

Bottom Line: You may have to be like M&M’s and turn “horney green” to “green is the color of love”.

So what do you think?

Will you ever look at a bag of M&M’s the same again? Do you have any additions to these lessons? Share in the comments below.

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