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?