Monday, December 3, 2012

The Marshmallow Challenge and the PDCA cycle

The Marshmallow Challenge is an interesting team building game. Not only does this silly game teach how to collaborate as a team, but, more importantly, teams that perform well, use an iterative method. 

Sound familiar? In lean, small kaizens can lead the way to big changes. PDCA is an iterative process. In software development, releasing successive iterations of products are now the norm. Can anyone say, "Upgrade?"

The point of the Marshmallow Game is dead simple. Build a free standing tower out of uncooked spaghetti sticks that will support a single marshmallow. The winning team has the highest tower. And you have only 18 minutes to do it.

Although it's simple, after 18 minutes, you'll have a roomful of vastly different structures. Also, the Marshmallow Challenge is considered an exercise in psychology. Why do some teams have stellar performances, while others fall flat (literally!)?

Tom Wujec from Autodesk explains why, in the embedded video below:

Three main learning points come out of the Marshmallow Challenge and Tom Wujec's observations.

1. Prototyping matters. 

People that think hard about a single plan tend to fill the time working on that single plan. They typically fail as their marshmallow gets popped on top at the end and their structure collapses. Recent business school graduates fall into this category.

People that work with the marshmallow from the beginning and build up gradually, adding pieces and raising their marshmallow gradually end up succeeding most often. Recent kindergarten graduates fall into this category.

2. Diverse skills matter.

Predictably, engineers and architects tend to perform well and lawyers and MBA's perform. . .less well. But a good facilitator will bring any team together. Teams that include an executive assistant almost always perform  the best! A skilled facilitator will bring out everyone's ideas, track the timing and improve overall communication.

3. Incentives magnify outcomes.

Do incentives motivate teams? You betcha! But not always the right way. Unskilled teams will be motivated to perform, but will consistently perform worse! While skilled teams will perform even better with a little motivation. Motivation will highlight the teams skills or lack thereof as they strive for victory.

How will the Marshmallow Challenge help your next lean effort?

The importance of the PDCA process is clearly highlighted by the challenge. It's in our nature to try things until they work, but somehow education has taught us to ignore this. In what other challenge can kindergarten students consistently outperform business school graduates?

Now, I won't be asking my 5 year-old to develop the business plan for my new start-up, but perhaps we have lost some basic skills in our 15+ years of schooling. It's important to plan our lean activities, but at some point we need to DO! Just do part of it and see what happens. Maybe you'll fail a few times. But those small steps move you closer to your goal. You can fail small, instead of a mega-fail. And then when you win, you really win. And that's how you move your business forward.

You can pick up the instructions for the Marshmallow Challenge at

I'll leave you with this exciting video of the final minute of a marshmallow challenge:

Has anyone tried the Marshmallow Challenge? Tell us about it!

I've added the Marshmallow Challenge to my list of lean games and simulations.


  1. I have used it in a number of situations. In a Healthcare Financial Manager Association conference with LEAN speakers as a lunch project. In my Kiwanis meetings as a program. Everyone had a good time. The second time in Kiwanis, they all still failed to make one tower. We're all to old to learn I guess.

    1. Sometimes the simplest solution is the easiest one. I know I would be trying to get the marshmallow to the ceiling and I'm sure it would be a disaster!
      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. best creative solution ever (from my experience) : one single spaghetti, with the marshmallow at one end, the spagnetti taped horizontally on a table .Then you just put the table on its side, and on another table : the-single-spaghetti-taped-to-the-vertically-erected-table-laying-on-another-table wins the contest !

  3. This game is about creating a free standing support

  4. Hi Martin -
    I am working on putting together a curriculum for high school kids that shows them manufacturing processes. I see lots of great activities on your web site. Can we use these in the curriculum?