Tips for Lean Managers

Why Salmon Would Fail at Hoshin Kanri

By Jon Miller Updated on May 23rd, 2017

While cleaning out my pockets after a long summer of travel I found “hoshin is like salmon” on a bit of improvised note-taking paper, in my handwriting. If it was important enough to write down, the meaning of this scrawl should have been important enough to remember. Jet lag and the demands of transoceanic travel have their way reprioritizing what gets committed to memory, and I have no idea what “hoshin is like salmon” could have possibly meant. I vaguely recall the image of salmon swimming upstream and spawning. Hoshin kanri is the strategy planning, deployment and continuous improvement process practiced by the organizations most committed to operational excellence. I still can’t find the similarity between the two even after sleeping on it for a few nights.

In fact, I’m convinced that salmon would fail at hoshin kanri. Besides their obvious lack of brainpower and inability to form hierarchical organizations, here are a few reasons why salmon would fail at hoshin kanri:

Spawning many, nurturing none. The salmon management team as practitioners of hoshin kanri would fail by generating a great many initiatives but swimming away as soon as they were done brainstorming. Like many fish the salmon parent does not stick around to nurture their young. This is an environmentally adapted behavior as relatively few of their offspring survive to maturity. These unstructured, reactive point improvements put forth as projects on their annual plans by most management teams have similar rates of success as salmon roe. Exercising the 80-20 principle to identify the vital few objectives and the discipline to maintain our focus are things we can do better than salmon.

Doing catch ball only once. The spawned salmon that survive to adulthood swim downstream from their place of birth, then back upstream again. This is a bit like down-up-down catch ball in hoshin kanri, if catch ball happened only once and the idea died after reaching it’s originator. I’m willing to bet that 100% of our leaders are more intelligent and experienced in management than salmon, yet for some reason many fail at hoshin kanri for this same reason as salmon would.

Not evolving much. Salmon have survived for 50 million years without going extinct or radically changing their appearance and habits. We all know successful leaders like this. Unfortunately the hoshin kanri process is not as forgiving in its requirements to adapt and change as environmental pressures have been to salmon over the ages. Without deliberate learning through PDCA there is no hoshin kanri, just goal deployment, the distant cousin of command-and-control.

Not accounting for the brown bear. Related to the inability of salmon to benefit from organizational learning gained from PDCA, members of the species will continue to jump into the hungry maws of brown bears as long as we have hungry brown bears. Hoshin planning as practiced by salmon would have no long-term strategic planning or risk analysis. The review and learning process built into hoshin kanri helps us avoid feeding the brown bear more than once for the same reason.

I’m still not clear why I thought hoshin kanri is like salmon. I don’t see the resemblance at all. In the future I need to do a better job of documenting of ideas, plans and notes. That’s another area that salmon would no doubt fail at hoshin kanri.

  1. Joseph

    September 9, 2010 - 3:04 am

    If you have problems remembering things then there is no chance for the rest of us poor mortals.
    I along with many of your readers think that your brain is as sharp as a Laser.
    From your introduction I take it that you are back in ” The Zone Of The Interior.” known as Z/I. An old friend of mine who had worked at an American airbase told me that when the airmen were going home on leave they referred to the US as (Going. Zee Iy)as a rough phonetic spelling of what they called their home land.
    On the issue of the salmon their urge to spawn in the same place that they were born in showes a single minded commitment to their goal that we all could be proud of. The Bears are part of the trials and tribulations of every day life. ( For life read LEAN ).

  2. Matt May

    September 9, 2010 - 6:53 am

    Maybe you wrote it when you were EATING a salmon fillet…the cooked meat all neatly flaked, layered and aligned, start to finish, far more so than other fish. Just a thought…probably not a very good one. Only thing I could think of! Now I probably won’t get any sleep next coupla nights trying to figure out what you meant.

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