ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - October 2000


Issue Highlight — In Praise of C-SPAN
- Peter Block explains how supporting and viewing more media like C-SPAN, free of interpretation and corporate meddling, could provide an answer to the commercialized, unintellectual broadcasting that captures most of our attention.

A Mariner's Tale
Gather 'Round and Hear About a Middle Manager Trying to Keep Her Department From Sinking

Wouldn't it be great if work was like pre-school? All you would have to do is a little coloring and then head outside to play for a while before naptime. Well, that's how it is at one Seattle company-all work and all play.
  At Pike Place fish Market, employees are instructed to play with their food. By including their customers in their fun while efficiently serving up the best fish Seattle has to offer, Pike Place has found a formula for success. So why isn't your company having this much fun?
  According to Stephen Lundin, you should, and could! Just follow the four fundamental steps created by the fish market. So, check it out-see how your workplace could also be your play place!

  This is the story of Mary Jane Ramirez, a departmental manager for a fictitious company, First Guarantee, in Seattle. Ramirez is handed a job no one would envy-she's put in charge of the notorious third floor. The "third," as they are called (one of the more pleasant nicknames. Another is "toxic energy dump"), is a behind-the-scenes paperwork processing division of this financial services giant. Within the first month of her new job, Mary Jane finds workers dozing in the break room, staff who refuse to use software implemented two years ago and a phone that rings seven times before being manually disconnected-that is, she watches as a staff member yanks the cord from the wall. To make matters worse, Mary Jane is told by Bill, her new, big jerk of a boss, that she has little time to get this motley crew straightened out . . . or else.

Taking a Breather

  The boss' "or else" rings in Mary Jane's ears as she walks near Seattle's waterfront one day during lunch. It's no idle threat, and Mary Jane is a woman with a lot on the line-she's been widowed for two short years and is still struggling to cover the cost of her late husband's unforeseen medical bills while keeping herself and her two young kids afloat. She's desperate to find the solution that will save her job, and desperate to find happiness in her life.

  Puzzling over her situation, Mary Jane finds herself facing Seattle's public market. She's drawn from her consternation by the hustle and bustle of the world famous Pike Place Fish market, where fishmongers play catch with 20-pound salmon and cashiers use their theatrical talents to animate Alaskan crabs. Mary Jane stands reveling in the lighthearted, energetic fun when a handsome fishmonger named Lonnie strikes up a conversation. Talking with Lonnie, Mary Jane learns that Pike Place Fish was once full of "toxic energy" just like the third, and that any job, whether it's selling fish or shuffling paper, can be made into an energetic, fun place to work.

The Story Behind the Story

  "Lonnie isn't real, but I've based him on a real person," says Stephen Lundin, Ph.D. and author of Mary Jane's story, which you'll find in a book called "Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results" (Hyperion). Admittedly, a fish market is not the first place that comes to mind when searching for great new business management strategies, but Lundin and co-authors Harry Paul and John Christensen don't look in the typical places.

  Lundin is a filmmaker who first got to know his co-authors while producing films on poet David Whyte for Christensen, who owns ChartHouse Learning Corporation. ChartHouse makes videos for the business world that unapologetically veer into issues of passion, soul and purpose in the workplace. The same things you value as a person at home are the same things you need at work, according to ChartHouse. Those values include being fun-loving, attentive to others and applying energy and enthusiasm to the tasks at hand.

  While helping to film David Whyte in Seattle, Christensen stumbled upon the Pike Place Fish market and was struck by the fun-loving environment he found there. It turns out, in 1991 one of the fishmongers at Pike Place suggested the market could be world famous. The staff got together to discuss how to make that happen and what they came up with-what looks like a lot of clowning around-is an excellent model for all businesses to create a workplace that's easy to love.

  Christensen picked up on Pike Place Fish's model and identified the four main fundamentals of their success: Choose the attitude you bring to work. Second: Play. Just like recess-the Pike Place fishmongers play toss with fish, call out orders and repeat the calls lightheartedly, and joke with customers. Third: Make their day. What happens when you go out of your way to help someone, when you're especially kind, or funny and engaging? You make their day. At the fish market, customers are asked to stand up and catch a fish. The fish are wet and slick and hard to catch, and the experience is something so unusual, it's unforgettable. Fourth: Be present. Have you ever been at a store where the clerks are having a good time, just not with you? It's not nearly as fun as when you're engaged and taking part in the joking. People love it, and so do customers. Being present is paying attention to the customer and meeting their needs.

Back to Our Tale

  Pike Place Fish's four fundamentals create a workplace that's fun and successful, and ChartHouse's fish philosophy (the book, the movie and the Web site at have helped turn it into a contagious model that's worked across the business spectrum, including Sprint, Target, Saturn and Southwest Airlines.

  Mary Jane makes it work for her and her company, too. She takes her staff on a field trip to witness the fun and excitement at the market and explains that Lonnie and his coworkers were once in the line of fire, just like Mary Jane's staff. There are plenty of fish markets in Seattle, you see, and at one time Pike Place was no more special than any of these (let alone world famous, as it is now). Fishmongering is cold, wet and icky, just as processing paperwork can be tedious and boring. Make no mistake, gutting a fish doesn't naturally induce laughter and clowning around! But the mongers at Pike Place Fish decided they were going to approach work differently-like they loved what they did, even if it wasn't always the work they loved to do.

A Fairy Tale Ending

  So how do you become world famous for selling fish? Better yet, how do you become a department where everyone is having fun, where there's low turnover and a loyal customer base, with a staff who takes responsibility for their actions and help each other succeed?

  According to Lundin, you commit to the four principles Lonnie shares with Mary Jane in the story "Fish!." First, you have to choose your attitude. In the case of Mary Jane, she convinced her staff that the way they approached their job was entirely up to them. They could absorb the negativity from other departments at First Guarantee and become mired in feelings of inadequacy and discontent (a toxic energy dump), or they could choose to be in control of their own happiness. Next, they had to learn how to play, make their customers' day, and be present. Mary Jane's staff created an area of the office called "the sandbox," where creative work is done. They also implemented the use of code phrases like "you seem distracted," to remind coworkers that they need to pay attention to each other and the customers they serve. The third floor staff agreed not to read or answer e-mails while talking with a colleague or customer. And they decided to read books together about accountability and maximizing time, like "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Steven Covey.

  In the end Mary Jane's third floor became the envy of her company instead of its Achilles heel. If you find your company limping along, you may want to do what Mary Jane did-go fishing!

October 2000 News for a Change Homepage

 In This Issue...
Love 'Em and Lead 'Em
Getting The Moose On The Table
Is Zen Your Cup Of Tea?
A Mariner's Tale

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street

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