lean game: the standard Fish game

When teaching about standard operating procedures I like to use this standard fish game exercise. It can be used during the start of the training to warm up the trainees and let the people know each other in a fun way. But it is also a good in-between break for a longer session to keep the trainees motivated.


The goal of the exercise is to let the trainees experience first hand how standard operating procedures can help in the continuous improvement effort. Standard operating procedures are one of the most powerful tools but are often ignored.

 In fact, standard operating procedures are the basis from where we can start our improvement.  By documenting your best practices in standard operating procedures you reduce variation and make certain that the customer gets every time again the quality they expect.

Having standardized operating procedures does not mean that you can not change the way of working. In fact, you should look at them as living documents which are updated after improving the current way of working. The “new” standard operating procedures will form again the baseline for the next cycle of continuous improvement. This is visually illustrated in the figure below.

When creating SOP (standard operating procedures) you secure your improvements making certain that you keep your newly reach level of productivity. It forms also the basis for training new employees and bringing them up to speed with your way of working.

There is a lot of variation on this game and once you get the hang of it you can adapt it to your needs. In this article, I will describe the basic version. And in the last section "Further thoughts" you can find some ideas in order to adapt the exercise.


  • 1 to x people
  • Blank A4 or letter size paper, one per trainee
  • 3x3 grid A4 or letter size paper, one per trainee
  • Pen, one per person


There is no special preparation required except for printing out the 3x3 grid papers.

Game play

  1. Round 1: In this game, the customer (You) wants to have drawings of fishes from the trainees who have to manufacture them for you. In the first round, everybody can draw a fish without any kind of instructions except that they have to start from a blank paper which you will hand out to them and that they have 1:30 minutes time to draw the fish.
  2. End round 1: Collect the fishes and put them on a wall or whiteboard so that everybody can see them. There will be a lot of variation between the drawing. There will be fishes in all kinds of shapes. Point out this variation to the trainees and say that this is not what you wanted.

  1. Round 2: In round two you will give them a paper that has a 3 x 3 grid on it as shown below. You can make it yourself or you can use the template from the lean six sigma learning academy. Explain to them that you will provide them with oral work instruction. You will read them aloud 2 times per step. There will be further no questions answered. Read aloud the following instructions (2 times per bullet point):
    • Draw an upward arc from the top-left intersection to the top right intersection
    • Draw a downward arc from the bottom left intersection to the bottom right intersection
    • Draw an arc from the top right intersection to the bottom right intersection
    • Draw a circle for the eye in the middle of the right grid line
    • Draw an upside-down V for a fin in the middle of the curve in the top central box
    • Draw two V’s, for fins, spaced evenly apart on the lower central curve
    • Draw a curve from the top-left point of the X to the bottom left point of the X to form the tail
    • Draw an arc for the mouth starting at the bottom right intersection. Must be a happy fish!
    • And finally, draw four circles for bubbles – two in the middle of the central right box and two in the top right box
  2. End round  2: Collect the fishes and put them on the wall or whiteboard next to the fishes of the first round. Tell them that the customer is now already happier since there is less variation between the fishes and the drawings look more like the customer had in mind. (Probably there will be a few fishes who are still not correct). Now that the standard is set, it looks like the trainees are producing consistent products with good quality.

  1. Other points: Here are some more points you could discuss with your trainees:
    • Did you feel the instruction where enough or was training needed?
    • How do you think that the Standard operating procedures could be improved further? How can you add more details (e.g. size of the eye, air bubbles, …)?
    • Was oral communication efficient? How would you communicate the instruction if there was the next round?


So now it should be clear that the standard operating procedures help in continuous improvement effort which reduces variation and wastes through standardizing best practices. You do not need to have a complex standard operating procedure in order to improve. Remember KISS: Keep it Simple Stupid.

Asking them how to improve the instructions will generate normally a lot of ideas, since they are creating the drawings they also know what can be improved. This is also the case in real life. The people who are closed to the process know the process the best. Therefore you should always include them in making Standard Operating procedures.

While the exercise did not go into detail on how to make an SOP you should have learned some pointers from the exercise. Creating an SOP is not as simple as it looks. Some of the points that may come up during the discussions are: text vs image, level of detail needed, way of reviewing/training, adding additional information (e.g. reason why, safety)…

Further thoughts

If this game is a part of a lean six sigma course you could also include some of the below elements:

 “Voice of the customer” or VOC: After round 1 they can interview the customer on what he exactly wants and try to create an SOP by themselves.

7+1 waste reduction: Due to the sequence of the instructions there is a lot of motion waste in the process. Look at opportunities to improve this (read: less taking of your pen from the paper and creating more fluent lines)

Teaching Within Industry (TWI) / Training: Without training, you will probably get in round two pictures that look like this:

If you have multiple groups you can split the groups in 2 and let half of the groups have a traning before round 2. Afterwards you can see the differnces between the two and discuss the beneifts of training.