People, Process, and the Sausage Factory


In Product Development, we sometimes speak of “hiding the Sausage Factory”, meaning “hiding the complexities of software development and release” from our users. We want our users to enjoy using our products - they don’t need to know all the trials and tribulations it takes to get there.

In our Product Development Factory, we define standard processes and workflows, to bring some efficiency, consistency, and predictability to our work. However, we’re human - we’re not interchangeable cogs. Someone goes on vacation, people change roles, people move on - the successor may not do the same things in exactly the same way. There is an unwritten first step in every process: “Think”.

So I absolutely loved the following process story, that is ACTUALLY about sausage making and the importance of people in process, when I came across it on the This American Life podcast.


In 1970, the Vienna Sausage Company of Chicago moved from the south end of the city to a new facility in the north end. The plant was brand new, state of the art, with perfect refrigeration, and spit clean. They move the production of their natural, old-world, hickory smoked, natural-casing hot dogs to this new facility. And it just isn’t as good as the product from their old facility. The hot dogs lack the right snap when you bit into them, and the color was more pink than red. Something was wrong.

Ingredients were the same, spices were the same, process was the same. Was the water different on the other side of town? They searched for a year and half, and could not identify the difference.

Then one night, a bunch of guys from the plant are out having a drink, gabbing about the good old days, back in the old plant on Maxwell Street. They start talking about this guy named Irving, one of those guys who knows everybody in the plant, has nicknames for everybody. And listen to what Irving’s job was. Every day, he would weave his way with the uncooked sausages through the maze of passageways in the old plant.

He would go through the hanging vents, where they hang the pastrami pieces, and it’s quite warm. And he would go through the boiler room, where they produced all the energy for the plant. He would go next to the tanks where they cook the corned beef, finally get around the corner, and in some cases, actually go up an elevator. And then he would be at the smokehouse. He would put it in the smokehouse and he would cook it.

And as they were telling stories about Irving– Irving this, Irving that– a light bulb goes off. In the fancy new modern plant, there was no Irving. Irving didn’t want to commute to the north side.

There was no maze of hallways. There was no half-hour trip where the sausage would get warm before they would cook it. In the new plant, they just stuffed the sausages in a cold room and cooked them in a smokehouse in the room next door to it. Irving’s trip was the secret ingredient that made the dogs red. So secret, even the guys who ran the plant didn’t know about it.

So they said, oh, my God, that is, of course, the reason. Why didn’t we know that? That’s the dumbest thing in the world to not realize. It’s right there.

How did they fix it? They built a new addition onto the plant about two years after moving in. In this room, they emulate the old area of the old plant… to simulate Irving’s walk across the old factory._

A process that was just a part of someone’s day, that no one had even recognized its significance. A human factor.