When Fish Fly

By Jon Miller Updated on July 22nd, 2018

For more than 20 years fish have been flying through the middle of downtown Seattle. Locals come to the Pike Place Fish Market to buy fresh fish. Tourists come for the novelty of seeing the fishmongers throw 10-pound salmon to each other 50 feet through the air. The tradition continues, as owner John Yokoyama has sold his fish market to three employees.

The unusual practice of throwing fish began with what sounds like a kaizen idea. Yokoyama started counting the steps it took for him to pick up a customer’s selection, walk around back and to the scales to weigh, cut and package the fish, then all the way back to the front to hand the package to the customer. “It took me 100 steps,” said Yokoyama. One day he threw the package, saving 100 steps. He never looked back.

There is more to the Pike Place Market than people throwing fish. There is a sense of energy, performance and fun that leaves visitors smiling. This is no accident. When the business was struggling in 1986, the management of the Fish Market decided, “Let’s become world famous.” The effort to save the business required Yokoyama to examine his own behavior as a leader. According to the Seattle Times, “I had to transition myself from a yelling, screaming dictator tyrant who my employees didn’t like very much into someone who cares about people and is committed to being in a loving partnership with my employees, our customers and the world.”

This developed into a business philosophy that was turned into a 17-minute corporate-training video, workshops and lucrative speaking engagements. The “Fish!” video explains the four elements of the philosophy as play, be there, choose your attitude, and make their day. Many organizations have used the video and its lessons to boost morale, increase employee retention, improve customer service and productivity. Here are some video testimonials.

While some organizations may focus on making a better product, even at the expense of customer and employee experience, the lesson from the Pike Place Fish Market is that the entire employee-and-customer experience can be the product. The fish at the Pike Place Fish Market is not significantly better than at any other market in Seattle. Arguably, there are better deals on fresh seafood at other markets. But they make the normally boring activity of buying fish fun. More than that, the interaction with the fishmongers brightens your day. They are playful. They are present in the moment with the customers, and each other. They have great attitudes. And they try to make your day. Given the choice of buying from people who are clearly not enjoying their work, and people who are clearly having fund and making and effort to brighten your day, many of us would pay a bit more for the same product.

It was a happy accident that the kaizen idea to throw the fish in order to reduce steps also added an element of novelty and playfulness to the customer experience. It was fortunate that Yokoyama made respect for people the pillar of his fishmonger philosophy. How many of us sell a commodity or service that we could differentiate by adopting the customer and employee-centered Fish! philosophy?

  1. Jay Bitsack

    July 23, 2018 - 4:27 pm

    Hi Jon,
    “Throwing a fish” definitely sounds like an exciting/intriguing event to witness… Not unlike the display of juggling talent put on by Japanese chefs in Benihana-like restaurants. And it may even be worth the extra price one might pay for the fish to be present in an environment where both attitude and talent are positive and complimentary.

    That said, I have to ask several other “lean” THINKING AND BEHAVING-related questions about this operation. First and foremost… what about SAFETY when it comes to throwing fish (sometimes over distances of 50 feet). What is being done to ensure that both employees and customers are being adequately protected??? Secondly, how is “ERROR-PROOFING” being implemented? Seems to me that the act of throwing a fish is potentially fraught with a very high degree of variability; especially when it comes to controlling ALL the factors that might influence the outcome of the process. And finally, what happens when an error/defect occurs? How do the employees and management staff respond? What happens to the “damaged” fish (or whatever)? Does the practice of “throwing fish” result in higher liability insurance rates?

  2. Jon Miller

    July 23, 2018 - 4:50 pm

    Hello Jay
    Good questions.
    At first glance, throwing fish doesn’t look safe. But it’s probably safer than restaurants that juggle steak knives, light desserts on fire, or knowing serve people excessive amounts of alcohol.
    I’ve seen the occasional fish that slips away and skids across the pavement. Customers don’t seem to mind, perhaps they are there not for a perfect fish, but for the performance.

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