Penn and Teller Fool Us Appearance: A CI Perspective

So here I am 2 weeks after taping in Las Vegas for the Penn and Teller TV show Fool Us thinking about Continuous Improvement? Yes I am. The Penn and Teller Fool Us TV show is a network production so it's highly organized, redundant (they have back up systems for everything) and impressive. What struck me though was the communication and when you think about communication in industry you can't help but think about steps in CI like Waste Reduction, Connections and Flows and so on. The Fool Us team of 100 people was lead in a very compartmentalized efficient manner that blew my mind. I've been in plenty of TV productions but never network. So let’s examine what I observed...shall we? Oh, direct observation is a CI thing too. Voyeurs, yep we love to watch processes.

The first structured activity was a non dress rehearsal in front of KEY people, Producer, Director, Prop Manager, Talent Manager, Costume Director and Assistants to each. The whole thing was video taped and took about 15 minutes. They took the tape to their Editor, Stage Manager, Technical Director and Sound Engineers for their meeting about HOW to best light the act, what backdrop would be appropriate and what cameras gave the TV viewer the best experience. Just so you know, this is my reflection of the events that follow, read on.

The production crew had their work cut out for them as they tape an entire season in 2 and a half weeks. That's 2 shows a day, 10 magicians a day for a total of about 60 performers coming and going. Oh, that's another department, TRAVEL. They had their own thing too and were FABULOUS, but let's talk about CI! Wait, transportation is a CI thing too but I want to talk about the TV part not about riding in a car.

The shoot comes the following day. You wake up and are taken to a handler but the Penn and Teller badge says "Escort." That's pretty funny guys, Vegas...escort, we get it, and love it. But the escort is THE pivotal person that makes the show great. The escort is someone that appears to be "low on the totem pole" in the scheme of things but what they do is one of the most important aspects of the show's success.

You are never alone, ever. Why? So you don't wander, get lost and bother people asking for directions and who to report to. There isn't time for it. You are a dog on a leash and you are THANKFUL for your escort, really thankful as this is a nerve racking time. You are separated from loved ones, you are alone and your equipment is somewhere in the building being touched by other people, ahhh!!! But it's all good. Once backstage in Penn and Teller's world you are taken to a holding area, where you prep your gear under the watchful eye of a stage assistant and you wait your turn for tech rehearsal. That time comes and goes without a hitch. Then you wait for the big moment. The moment you perform in front of a live audience of 1000 people under 9 cameras, lights and Penn and Teller. Their job is to BUST YOU. Busting is a term where they guess how you did the trick but they talk to you in code so the audience doesn't understand what the heck they are talking about. It's a fabulous format and incredibly it's the most pressure you will ever feel as a performer. But that's not what this article is about it's about the sexy CI experience.

The production team of 100 are all, now get this, free lance. Yes, free lance workers for a small TV production company that produces the show. That's the way things work in a syndicated production. Production companies are very lean. They are operated by a small team who are plugged in the system of TV entertainment from the generation of ideas for a show, to buying shows, assembling shows and outright writing and producing shows. The trick they have up their sleeve is assembling the very best freelance TV people who know their craft like it's nobody's business but their own.

So here is this crew of 100 + people who, for the most part, are working together for the first time or are working the show again but after a year away as they only tape 2 weeks out of the year. That's a lot of trust but it's also a product of LEAN standard processes that have been around TV and film production long before TPS. By the way, where is my RED STAPLER? (movie reference).

What impressed me the most was the lack of ego. Everyone had this air of family. The person who put this merry band of people together understood, either through intuition or trial and error, how important it is to have the right personalities for the purpose they serve on the show. Look up DISC assessment and you'll know what I mean. Leaders were efficient and when they barked an order like "jump over there" everyone said "how high." It was amazing and I jumped the farthest.

There wasn't, in my view, a single moment of wasted time. There couldn't be, it was a union show and every hour was terribly expensive. If you are an act reading this I suggest you over rehearse and rehearse some more before going on a network show. You will be cut from the production if you come in with attitude, ill prepared and waste people's time. Seriously, acts out there, you have to be LEAN too. You must be efficient, listen, communicate and have exercised your PFMEA work prior to coming so if anything goes wrong you know what to do.

Back to the CI experience. Imagine that I'm the customer, I'm going to want to have as direct a line as possible to everything I may need from the company I purchased my widget from or in this case give up my time to watch Fool Us on TV. When I tune in I want to enjoy the show, I don't want choppy edits to cover mistakes, I want to enjoy the show and not applaud someones editing skills. The customer is tuning in to see magic at its best. This is why I had a handler / escort. They were my direct line to the talent manager, floor director, props, costume, make-up, sound, producer and director. They were never chatting on the the walkie talkie either. Only important information was spoken. When I was taken up to go on stage it was gradual, not from the basement to the stage...GO! That would have been a disaster for the show. My handler put me on an elevator that brought me to a stage hand that greeted me with a smile and took me to a holding room to gather my thoughts. A few minutes later we walked down a hall and waited at the stage door entrance. Once back stage I was handed off to the sound guy who put my mic pack on and then handed off to the prop manager to make sure I had everything I needed. If I was on an automotive assembly line, I'd be a car by this time but without an owner.

People were engaging with me to make sure I was prepared and having a good "customer" experience. As a customer / performer all my wants were met and I never felt alone against the big machine that ran the TV production. This is what CI is all about, it does 2 things if done right. It provides a good working environment where people are busy with purpose, not just standing around doing nothing but wasting time, they were busy. When you are busy in a production like this you have a sense of purpose and accomplishment. That makes a happy employee and that translates to the customer way down the line. My customer experience was fantastic, nerve wracking and FUN! I made friends and gained respect for the freelance production community that made up the Penn and Teller Fool Us team. Someone should do a study of how that show is pulled off, it is a lesson in how LEAN works. Let’s examine connections and flows.

There are always more than one customer for any endeavor and for this show there are many. I'll miss some but from the 10,000 foot view, these are the ones I'll identify. The performer, the lawyers, the CW network, editors, union, directors, viewers and production crew. I'll focus on 2, the performer and the viewer. Let's face it those 2 are the most important. THE MOST important. Did I say that twice? Yes I did.

The performer, if not handled well, will not give a good performance. Magic is a tricky business to begin with as most of the gear we use can have a mind of it's own. Strings break, springs sprang, trap doors jam and mirrors break. Anything can go wrong so extra care must be given to generate a fantastic product / performance for the viewer. If this doesn't happen then all that work will not not appeal to the audience. Viewers will turn off, ratings go down and the show isn't brought back for another season. So EVERYTHING hinges on the performance. Some acts are seasoned pros and some are so nerves are racking everywhere. A nervous magician will NOT perform well, however a calm centered and relaxed magician will create compelling TV. This is why we have a handler or in my case an escort.

The escort keeps us calm, collected and gives us direction so we don't bug anyone doing their job. This is why every step to eliminate every type of waste is so important. What does this mean to the viewer? Well, let's look at value added.

The big value add to the whole production hinged on that escort. Does the viewer know that I was carted around, handled? No. Do they care? No, how can they care? But they can care in a different way. The escort is a value add that translated into a calmer, centered and relaxed performer. YouTube Penn and Teller Fool Us and I dare you to find a nervous act. Nerves were never an issue, you felt as if everyone and I mean all 100 + people were pushing you up the hill to be the very best you could be on that day. Translate that into a satisfied LOYAL viewer taking time out of their evening and enjoying themselves watching the show. This means higher ratings and another season.

Is Penn and Teller Fool Us a traditional manufacture LEAN process? Yes, but you have to look for it with a different eye. Manufacturing has parts, suppliers, raw materials, packaging and delivery of goods. Substitute parts with crew, raw material is the performer, getting the act to the venue is "raw material transportation," packaging is editing the show together and final delivery of goods being the viewer tuning in. There is more to it than that but you get the idea.

Conclusion: If you think your job seems unnoticeable, doesn't have an impact or you are "too low on the totem pole". Think again. Look at your connections in your processes. You might be that escort that makes the customer value your product above all others.

My experience with Penn and Teller Fool Us was a career highlight I will never forget. I have high hopes they will be around another season and if I can manufacture a new trick, using LEAN processes to fool them, well, I hope to be on the show again is all I'm saying. It was a real magical CI experience. Mind Blown!