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Continuous Improvement Teams & The Deadliest Catch

6 Reasons Why Crab Fishing on Deadliest Catch is a Model for Lean Managers & Employees

Where can you find some of the best Lean Six Sigma teams around? The people I’m thinking of don’t spend their day on the shop floor or in an office. They work on the deck of a boat. Surprisingly, a great example of Lean operations is on Discovery Channel’s hit show Deadliest Catch.

Many regard fishing for crab in the Bering Sea as one of the most brutal—and lethal—occupations in the world.

(Check out this video if you have never seen the show before)

It makes sense that there is some sort of Lean process flow that helps keep the crew alive and the boat intact in the midst of constant danger.

Let’s take a closer look at their daily operations…

  • Standard Work Is Second Nature

The sleep-deprived crew has to precisely follow Standard Work to keep from getting injured as gigantic, frigid waves crash over the bow and 900-pound crab pots swing onto the heaving deck.

If someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time he could easily get killed. I doubt these guys have their processes written out on Standard Work Combination Sheets. But when you watch them do their jobs, it’s clear that everyone is well-trained, and that they go exactly where they are needed, when they are needed.

  • Productivity Is Emphasized

It is a race against the clock. The Alaskan king crab season is short, so every minute counts.

  • Competition Is Fierce

The captain and his crew not only battle the onslaught of stormy seas, but they face aggressive competition from other ships in the fleet—ships that are trying to grab their own share of the profits.

  • Total Preventative Maintenance (TPM) Is Critical

The boat must be very well-maintained. If the heavy machinery or other equipment fails miles from the closest port, it puts the crew at risk. And that’s not just the risk of losing profit from missing out on the catch—they could easily die of hypothermia in the middle of the unforgiving ocean.

  • Quality Metrics Are Used

The crew inspects and measures every crab to make sure it meets industry regulations. If they get it wrong, the captain could get fined.

  • Motivated & Engaged Employees Make The Difference

One the most remarkable things about Deadliest Catch is that all of these guys are 100% vested in the ship’s performance 100% of the time. The crew and the captain are completely aligned in their goal of catching crab and making money. Why? Because the crew’s pay is based on a percentage of profits. Whatever income they make during the season often has to support them for the remainder of the year on land. So, they are willing to pay a tremendous price for the chance to reap a great reward.

This last point is worth discussing in more detail. It would be hard for the average typical 9-to-5 employee to match the level of dedication that it takes to repeatedly go 30+ hours without sleep while working on a pitching, ice-covered deck in the middle of a storm. Not only are the typical working conditions of a crab fisherman incredibly harsh, but there is the constant risk of not getting paid at all—or even dying. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it shows how far teams will go when they share common goals with their employers.

On dry land, though, there is often an ‘us vs. them’ mentality between employees and managers. Deadliest Catch makes you wonder what could be achieved if Lean managers and employees could find a way to be even a fraction more aligned. Some teams ‘get’ this. Far too many do not.

Let us know in the comment how well employees and leaders are teamed together in your company.


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