A Corollary to the Red-Bead Experiment, with Salmon

“The results came from the system, not the people.”

This is Dr. Deming’s conclusion to his famous red-bead experiment.  He believes that defects are inherent in any complex system.  The experiment consists of simulated workers scooping up beads from a bucket, and delivering those beads to another.  Most of the beads are white, while some are red.  The red beads represent defects.

The experiment shows that everyone will deliver defects to the finished product, because there are defects (red beads) in the original bucket.  Last fall, I had the privilege to watch a live version of the experiment, conducted by Rex Black, at the Pacific Northwest Software Quality Conference in Portland.  Here is the video, which is well worth the watch:

My corollary comes from sport-fishing.  Living in the bay area, I’m blessed with being able to fish for salmon right outside the Golden Gate Bridge.  I usually fish from a party boat, with 25-40 other fishers.

One ritual is the “jackpot”. When we push off in the morning, everyone puts $5 into a pot. At the end of the day, the person with the largest fish wins the jackpot.  The jackpot winner is usually congratulated about being really good at fishing.

Nice Fish

The corollary comes from the nature of how we fish with all those people on the boat. Everyone uses the same gear, the same bait, and the same technique. The skill for finding fish comes from the captain, who maneuvers the boat to intersect with the salmon school.  From the salmon’s perspective, they see 25 identical baits.

The best fish goes to a random person, selected by the fish. Not based on the skill of the fisherman.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells us that great success is often random chance (to well prepared individuals who are already experts in their field).

Salmon fishing feels the same way.