ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - January 2002


Issue Highlight — Teams Are Awesome!
-In Teams Are Awesome! -- We offer you the power, energy, and innovation that come out of teams working together to improve their work, their work environment, and, as often as not, themselves. They truly inspire awe. Here we present four teams selected at random from those who have entered AQP's Team Excellence Competition.

Fish Philosophy and Teamwork
John Yokoyama on Teamwork, Vision, Joy in Work, and More…

“What was that one?”

“I’m not sure, it flew by too quickly and I was laughing too hard. But it was probably a salmon—it was pretty big.”

Flying salmon? Laughing too hard? Welcome to the most financially successful and fun 1,200 square feet of sales space on the planet—Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. John Yokoyama is a self-admitted former hard driving, hard-nosed old style boss. But some years back, at the brink of business failure, he ran into Jim Bergquist—strategic business coach. They had a meeting, someone said, “We should become world famous!” and everyone, including John, agreed. The rest is history as they say. This is one of the most engaging looks into business success that you will ever read about. By the way, their new vision for Pike Place Fish Market? “World Peace, an Idea Whose Time Has Come!”

NFC: John, you’re the inventor of the fish market and Jim Bergquist has been your consultant. If no one had ever heard of the fish market and how you run it, how would you describe your vision of it?

Yokoyama: Pike Place Fish is a company that’s created a working environment where the employees can have a lot of fun and also produce phenomenal results out of that. Everybody wants to find out how we’ve created an environment where people can actually participate in such a way that when they come to work they make a huge difference for the customers and have a good time while they’re doing it.

NFC: That had to be the way that you wanted to work yourself?

Yokoyama: I took over the fish market in 1965 when I was 25 years old. I ran it for almost 20 years the old-fashioned way—cracking the whip and making sure that I was watching everything and ruling the roost so to speak. Then about 13 years ago we had a time that we were in a lot of trouble and were almost forced into bankruptcy. At that time there were only six of us and we got together and decided we had to either sink or swim. We changed our philosophy of how to do business. I discovered we could actually enroll people to create results versus demanding them to.

NFC: Is that when Jim got involved?

Yokoyama: Yes, that’s one of the things Jim inspired in our company. He suggested we change the environment. So I took a look at that and thought that’s something we need to do. From that point on it kept growing. It took awhile for us to get it rolling.

NFC: Something had to click. There are lots of different ways you could try to save your business. Why did this work so well for you?

Yokoyama: Jim suggested we create a vision. We were sitting around and one of the kids in the meeting said, “Let’s become world famous.” And we looked at that and we thought, “This kid is nuts. How are we going to become world famous? We’re a fish market.” We looked at that and we decided, why not? Let’s give it a shot. The six of us committed individually to become world famous.

NFC: How hard was it for the six of you to change how you worked together?

Yokoyama: It was harder for me than it was for them. It was a lot better for them because the dictator disappeared. They actually acquired a partner. They acquired a team member instead of a tyrant boss. It was a pleasure for them to have the transition. It was tough for me because I had to make a 180-degree turn in how I ran the business. When we took that vision and committed to it individually, one of the things that Jim said was, “Once you create a vision you don’t really have to know how to accomplish the vision. If you really commit to it, the universe will align with you and let you know what’s next.” Once we did that, that’s exactly what’s happened for the last 13 years.

NFC: Some people would say that sounds so Californian.

Yokoyama: It does. But in our experience in the last 13 years we know this stuff really works for us because everything that we’ve committed to has happened. We decided we’d become world famous and all of a sudden the first thing to happen within the first three months was the Goodwill Games showed up and we had cameras from all over the world visiting us.

NFC: What attracted the Goodwill Games, and customers, at that point?

Yokoyama: Throwing the fish really attracted a lot of people. We became performers, on stage versus fish salesmen.

NFC: That’s sort of like the old idea of the guy doing flapjacks in the window of the diner.

Yokoyama: The difference was we made a commitment to make a difference for every human being who walked within 30 feet of the shop. Even though they didn’t buy anything we were going to make sure that we made their day. We wanted to make a difference for human beings in general, whether they were customers or not and to serve them in such a way they would leave the shop area inspired.

NFC: Have any of the other operators at the market taken some hints from you guys?

Yokoyama: Some of them, but most of them are operating the old way.

NFC: You think that maybe you have to have that pain? Maybe there has to be some trigger that enables you to say, “Wait a minute I’ve gotta do something.”

Yokoyama: I think there is a lot of fear. Especially owners of small businesses are afraid to trust people, afraid to give power away. I think that’s the biggest fear for small business owners.

NFC: Were there some sleepless nights for you until it became clear that it was going to work?

Yokoyama: I was committed to it so it wasn’t painful for me at all because in order for it to be successful, I had to commit to it 100 percent myself. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. It wasn’t painful, but it was hard at times. When I saw something go wrong, I wanted to revert to the old way and start yelling and screaming.

NFC: Saying “all right guys this is the way we’re going to do it...”

Yokoyama: Yeah, instead of taking somebody aside and saying, “Hey listen, there’s been a breakdown here, let’s have a conversation about the possibilities.”

NFC: Now since you have become world famous I presume it’s also profitable?

Yokoyama: We went from six people to 21. Our sales volume has gone up about four times what it was 10 years ago. Profits have gone up.

NFC: Are you selling over the Web?

Yokoyama: Yes, we are. That’s something. These guys who work for me create their own work environment. They have created the Web (site). Everything that’s done at Pike Place Fish comes from within. The ideas, everything that’s happening, as far as the Web site, those are all ideas that came from the guys who work.

NFC: How are you the boss these days? It has to have changed how you approach the work.

Yokoyama: I show up at work maybe four to seven hours a week. The truth is I’ve given almost everything away. As far as responsibilities? I’ve given it all away to everybody at the store. They take it on like it’s their place.

NFC: Are they profiting themselves now? Have you changed the way you pay them?

Yokoyama: We’ve got a 401k program that we never had before. We got a bonus program now. They set goals every month and if they meet their goals they get a bonus out of that. They set a goal for gross volume and they know what their food costs have to come in at. If they meet those two goals they get around $200 a month if they hit that goal, or more.

NFC: I was saying you must have very low turnover compared to where you were before.

Yokoyama: At times... we had a huge turnover a few years ago. We lost about a third of our old crew and replaced them with brand new kids. I think now we’ve got the best crew I’ve had in some 32 years. I think when you create a vision the appropriate things happen. People leave if they’re not committed to the vision. They have to change and grow themselves.

NFC: I guess it’s not just that you created the vision, but then the company keeps evolving. The vision is something you never catch up to in a sense. Perhaps a good number of people bought into it initially thinking this is what it’s going to be, but as things evolved, they felt “this is more than what I figured on and I want more predictability.”

Yokoyama: When I committed to the vision, my goal was to retire in the next couple of years and buy a place in Palm Springs. Then my son was up here. We brainstormed and created all these possibilities. At one meeting about three years ago, my brothers came up with, you know we need to have “Pike Place—the movie” show up. That’s when Chart House International showed up about three weeks later and said, “We’d like to make a video of you guys.” We didn’t think too much of it, but right now they’re the hottest selling videos on the market today. And it’s translated into so many different languages and sold worldwide. That’s the source of our new area we’re moving into. Something I had no idea would show up. That’s one of the things that happen when you create a vision. The universe kind of tells you this is what’s next. And when that possibility came up I said, “No way, we’re not gonna travel out of town. I’m not a speaker. I’m not going to do this.”

NFC: You were a manager of a fish market. Now you’re a teacher.

Yokoyama: Scared the heck out of me to go to corporate Americans and start telling them how we created the possibility of becoming world famous. Another thing we did at one meeting, we said we needed more media coverage. Right after that the phone started ringing off the hook. We got all kinds of interviews.

NFC: What distinguishes you from other successful businesses?

Yokoyama: The secret to one of the distinctions that we’ve gotten is that if we all committed to the possibilities individually we have to do it individually; we can’t do it as a group. Each person has to take that on individually for themselves, and then all kinds of things happen. We know that groups can’t create. Only individuals can create. So we have these brainstorming meetings and we all agree that we’re going to take that on and that’s what’s going to happen. And I’ll tell you, it has not failed us for 12 years.

NFC: That’s great. So what do you think is next? Have you guys created another vision?

Yokoyama: We always create a new vision. It’s called “World Peace, An Idea Whose Time Has Come.” We started on that vision about a year ago. We don’t know how we’re going to accomplish that, but it’s something we’re really committed to. So we’ll see what happens.

NFC: Just take a step down and say we’ll communicate that to a good number of more people. If nothing else, the idea of some guys—men and women—in a fish market who have decided they’re going to work for world peace now. That’s pretty...

Yokoyama: That’s pretty outrageous.

NFC: It’s like when you decided you were going to become world famous. That was pretty outrageous. But it’s outrageous enough that it’s going to stick in people’s minds.

Yokoyama: The thing that we’ve discovered is about a year ago we think we fulfilled the “world famous” vision, so we needed to move into something else. We know one thing, if you don’t keep expanding, the space of possibility disappears. So we needed to create a new vision at that time. We thought we already fulfilled the old one. That’s still part of our routine as far as service and everything else goes, and making a difference for people, but we had to create something new that was a little bit bigger to move into to keep us alive, to keep us expanding.

NFC: There’s something about that kind of a goal: Once you feel you’ve more or less gotten to that point you’re going to want to, I don’t know if you want to call it retire, but you need something new to be working for, and oftentimes it will be a larger scale.

Yokoyama: And the thing that happened out of that was that we made a presentation to Shell Oil in Scotland. We went over there for a four-day seminar. We actually stayed overnight on the oil platform. That was something that I never wanted to do. Go out of the country! But then Jim said, “Hey listen, you said world peace, well this is world, baby! You have to start traveling throughout the world.” And I said, “Oh, my God, look what’s showing up now out of that commitment.”

NFC: Some folks find it hard to believe that any organization that might have been described at one time as a tyrannosaurus rex could switch.

Yokoyama: I’ve had grown men crying because I was so ruthless and mean to them. I’ll tell you one thing, there’s a huge difference in production when the people are in an environment of support. It makes a huge difference. They perform differently.

NFC: When you were the BOSS-boss, the adrenaline had to be pumping all the time. The adrenaline still might be pumping, but it’s for a different reason—you’re enjoying yourself. It’s really different from being on edge and feeling like you’re holding onto everything or it would just fall apart.

Yokoyama: It comes from my commitment to my boys to have a great life as well as they have that same commitment for me; the love we have for each other makes all the difference. I never had that before.

NFC: Plus it gives you more time for your boys. Maybe that’s the best bonus of all.

January 2002 News for a Change Homepage

In This Issue...
Fish Philosophy and Teamwork
Connected But Not Connecting
Thriving Through Teamwork
Ten Compelling Reasons Why Your Company Shouldn’t Downsize

Peter Block Column

Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

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