RBMA throws off 8 years of reimbursement cuts to fling fish in Seattle

The world-famous Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle and its flying fish wasn't world famous before it implemented its "extraordinary technology of being." In fact, the market was very much on the ropes and in danger of disappearing altogether.

Instead, management made a calculated shift in style. It declared that the Pike Place Market henceforth would be world famous; it stopped doing and started being; it committed to improving the lives of its employees; and it became the world-famous Pike Place Market without spending a dime on advertising.

Monday in Seattle, attendees at the RBMA Fall Educational Conference heard consultant and business coach Jim Bergquist and two of the market's signature fish-flinging fishmongers who embodied the transformation of the market deliver the the talk, "A Game Worth Playing—Creating a Company People Love Working For."

What do the men and women who run the business side of the radiology practices in this country have in common with those who manage the fishmongers who prepare the raw material for America's dinner table, spending their days with ice and dead fish? Maybe it was eight consecutive years of looking for increasingly scarce savings to balance reimbursement cuts, but the membership soon was on its feet flinging fish alongside the fishmongers.

Bergquist described a system of leadership in which intention trumps goals and coaching beats management because the extraordinary technology of being is about just that—being your intention. "People don't have much awareness of being, their focus is doing," he said. "We are interested in who you are being when you are doing what you are doing—because that determines the quality of your work."

With respect to the resurrection of the fish market, Bergquist was brought in to avert an impending bankruptcy. He urged the owner, John Yokoyama, to focus on giving employees a new way of being who they are, and then constantly reinforcing that through coaching and whole-hearted support.

“This is not a glamorous job, so the question is who are you going to be, and that is something you dictate for yourself,” Bergquist says. “Are you going to be world famous? Or is this a lousy job? That makes a 12 hour day a 13 hour day.”

Because “the fish stinks from the head”, the manager had to "be" the declaration as well, Bergquist emphasized, and that meant being committed to the person who had not shown up yet. “If you are the coach, you have to see it,” he explains.

Today, the market is world famous, drawing tourists from everywhere on the globe. They come for the fun as much as the fish. After a customer selects a fish, it is flung behind the counter for wrapping as the fishmongers chant the order.

Four guiding principles

The management system is based on the following four principles:

  1. The power of personal responsibility. It's your team, it’s your company, and it’s a way of being, Berquist said. Support for each other is critical.
  2.  Wholes in alignment. Managers invite team members to correlate with them, resulting in a team of leaders. “When someone is aligned and owning the whole thing, they spontaneously do what is needed,” said Bergquist.
  3. Creating the future now. When Cassius Clay said, “I am the greatest,” he meant right now, not after he won the world championship. Bergquist also cited Gandhi’s famous quote: “You must be the change you wish in the world.”
  4. Breakthroughs, or the principle of miracles. The entire team must embrace what physicists call quantum leaps, or nonlinear discontinuous outcomes. “If you are creating something, you will have a lot of things happen that are nonlinear,” Berquist said. “I'm not saying don't make plans, because that is what makes things happen. But don't get too attached to your plan.”

In the system used by the owner of the Pike Place Fish Market, the declaration was all-important. “A lot of leaders don't understand, that in the management of human beings, it is all language,” he said. “If you walk in one day, and say, ‘We suck, this is terrible,’ then guess what, you suck.”

During the question-and-answer period of the program, attendees asked questions and Bergquist and the two fishmongers responded.

Question #1: One attendee wanted to know about the hiring process.

Answer: For the most part, the people hired to work at the Pike Place Fish Market are referred by someone. Also, you don't get hired right away, you get an opportunity to “try out for the team,” otherwise known as a probationary period.

Question #2: How does management dealt with the economic downturn, the dips and making the first sale of the day?

Answer: Wholes in alignment, the second principle, was the answer. Every day begins and ends with a huddle in which a financial goal is set and reasons for meeting or not meeting the goal are discussed. Within the goal, there is a daily commitment in which the employee decides who they need to be to make that happen.

“There might be a few minutes during the day when you lose it, so you have to look at the breakdown between team mates or between customers and us,” one of the fishmongers explained. “In the evening, we huddle again, did we do what we wanted to do? Why? Why not?”

Question #3: When you adopted this philosophy how did you get everyone on board, and how did you deal with those who didn't adopt it?

Answer: People who are not open to change generally decide they are not going to work at a place like the Pike Place Fish Market. They likely will find that they don't fit in, and move on. “Some people like routine, and they want to plod along in their routine,” Bergquist said. “You can create this awesome game to play, you make it up and then you commit to it. Have you ever been on a team where some people commit and others don't care? In the beginning, they have to have the ability to say no, because it they have to say yes, there is no power to it. If the leader is committed, then most of those people leave on their own.”

Berquist’s final piece of advice was this: Once you achieve your goal, you need to create a bigger vision. At the Pike Place Fish Market, that goal is world peace and prosperity for all people. Before you dismiss that as a pipe dream, consider this: Every single person in the room left with the smell of fish on their hands.  Now, that’s a powerful game.