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Vienna Sausage: A Story of Standard and Tribal Knowledge

Last week we came across a radio segment that outlined an interesting problem that Chicago-based Vienna Beef had with hot dog production. When the company made the transition to a new production facility, their staple product changed — and nobody knew why.

8 Decades, Same Hot Dogs

The signature product of the Vienna Beef company is their natural hickory-smoked vienna sausage. Each time a customer bites into one of these hot dogs, they expect the same consistency that the company had been reliably providing for 79 years.

 

Unfortunately, when production began at their new facility, product consistency took a turn for the worse.

 

With a long history of customer loyalty and product consistency, you can imagine the shock that management experienced when their famous dogs lost some of their renowned qualities. Jim Bodman, the Chairman of the Vienna Beef company had this to say about the problem:

 

“They tasted ok,” he says, “but they didn’t have the right snap when you bit into them. And even worse, the color was wrong. The hot dogs were all pink instead of bright red.”

 

Same Spice, Different Dogs

 

On all accounts, it seemed nothing had changed to the production process after the move to the new facility. The ingredients and spices were all the same, maybe it was the water source at the new facility? Was the new equipment impacting the taste?

 

Despite all their best efforts and hypotheses, the Vienna Beef company couldn’t resolve the consistency problem. After a year and a half of troubleshooting, a casual post-work conversation revealed the missing ingredient – inefficiency.

The Secret Spice: Irving

 

At the old facility, a worker by the name of Irving was responsible for transporting uncooked sausages to the smokehouse. Because this facility wasn’t designed with process efficiency in mind, Irving had to weave through a maze of machines and rooms, and up an elevator, to deliver the sausages to the smokehouse.

The combination of travel time and the heat of the rooms that the sausages travelled through was the reason for the flavor and color difference. During this trip, uncooked sausages were slowly warmed as they moved through the various rooms that led to the smokehouse.

 

This trip to the smokehouse was the missing ingredient. Unfortunately Irving, the man responsible for the transport, didn’t move with the new facility.

 

 

The Impact of Tribal Knowledge

 

The takeaway commonly attributed stories like this is, “You never truly know what makes you successful.” This implies that there are some factors of a process that we have no way of knowing. While that may be true, in this case there was one preventative action that could have caught this mess before it unfolded — Standard Work.

 

Had Vienna Beef been implementing Standard Work, this mistake would not have occurred. If a time observation was done and continuous improvement methods were implemented, this transportation process would have been recorded and management wouldn’t have had to rely on tribal knowledge to understand plant operations.

 

The procedures that Irving were performing every day were not properly documented. So while the facility may have moved, the process knowledge did not.

 

It took two years and a factory remodel to add Irving’s “secret ingredient” back to the sausages. While some may chalk this up to be a story of the cryptic nature of success, we think the story was fairly simple: Start recording procedures now so the fate of your factory doesn’t rely on the “Irving” at your company.

Corey Brown

With a background in technical writing and engineering, Corey leads Dozuki's content and research efforts; providing helpful information and insights for industry professionals.