Recently I visited the world-famous Tabasco sauce factory on Avery Island, Louisiana. We live approximately 30 miles from the global super-brand, and what else would a quality professional like to do on his holiday downtime than visit a factory to see what lessons he could learn? And my wife believed she’d be going on a nice day trip... well, I did, for sure.
I like factory tours because they allow me to gain insight into other industries, their practices and techniques, and how they establish and promote quality. Since I am a Quality Ninja, skilled in stealthy sneakiness in my approach to gleaning information, I also use tours as an opportunity to learn how the business comes up with its solutions. Normally it’s the process for creating solutions that stimulates me, not so much the solution. In the case of our Tabasco visit, this involved wondering how they came up with their solution to a quality need: How did they come up with their petit baton rouge, or “little red stick?”
Located on the banks of the Mississippi, Baton Rouge is the state capital of Louisiana. Today this city is noted for its hugely successful college football team, the LSU Tigers. (Why is it called “football,” when the ball is kicked only a handful of times?) From what I have been able to glean, the city was named when French explorers were ascending the river and came across the Native American territorial practice of lining the riverbanks with bloody stakes—hence, the French term for red stick: baton rouge. However, it wasn’t the place Baton Rouge that caught my quality eye; it was le petit baton rouge, or the little red stick found in the Tabasco sauce factory near the city.
Anyway, as factory tours go, this one was very informative. I learned that her majesty Queen Elizabeth II enjoys a bit of the hot stuff, and the factory gate has her royal seal of approval hanging above it. I learned that Tabasco sauce is exported to more than 180 countries, and each bottle is produced in this tiny enclave in Louisiana. Disappointingly, they weren’t bottling or manufacturing on the Friday we were there, not due to a holiday but because they are so efficient, they only manufacture Monday through Thursday.
So we’ve got efficiency, customer feedback by way of royal decree, and a global super-brand all housed in a little red brick building no bigger than my apartment block.
But to return to the most brilliantly simple quality principle I picked up that day. As we watched a well-produced and informative video on the hard-working farmers who cultivate the peppers in South and Central America, it was proclaimed that “only an expert can tell a perfectly ripe pepper.” So to help these pepper pickers produce the perfectly prepared and ripe peppers, they are issued a little stick, painted the very specific red, ripe pepper color. (If you wish to have more alliteration of “P” words, I would recommend meeting the tour guide at the factory. I think I counted her speaking 10 in a row in one sentence.) The little red stick is available for customers at the gift shop, along with other Tabasco merchandise.
What I really liked about this was how simple a quality idea it is. To me, Tabasco sauce is universally accepted, and I have seen it everywhere around the world. But I’d never really thought about how the company maintained the consistency that other mega-brands have. A glance at the side of the hot sauce bottle tells me there are few ingredients: peppers, vinegar, and salt. Since the key ingredient is the peppers for the spiciness and color, maintaining the consistency of the peppers themselves would be vital. However, anything that grows out of the ground, dependent on weather, soil, rain, and sunlight, is subject to wonderful variation, and in this case, the variation would be too difficult to reduce or eliminate.
Reducing variation in the pepper selection is undoubtedly an excellent outcome from having a comparator in the form of le petit baton rouge. It also reduces waste. Because the peppers are hand-picked, there is no discarding of under-ripe peppers; they are left on the plant to mature for the next day of picking. The need for training on selecting the perfect pepper is negated or very minimal, I would presume.
Tabasco’s environmental credentials don’t stop there: The company also uses old barrels recycled from the Jack Daniels distillery. These are used in the process of turning the pepper mash into a sauce during a three-year period. To top it all, the factory grounds are located on an island nature reserve and bird sanctuary.
So how did Tabasco achieve excellence and consistency? Was it by a super Six Sigma Master Black Belt? Was it a world expert in quality improvement? Well, no. It was a small business that found a creative solution to a problem that it took the time to understand. It was a business that deemed the quality of its product the most important element, and it created a solution that also helps stakeholders outside its factory gates.
This is a similar story to other great companies, but there’s one difference that sets this company apart from Toyota, Apple, or Google: The McIlhenny family has been able to sustain the vision of Edmund McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce business since the 1880s. I laugh at myself for not recognizing this sooner. A pupil of the Toyota principle for so long, I failed to see quality in a different industry. Yet that little bottle with its bright red top has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, either in a cupboard or on a table, as consistent as the Earth spinning on its axis, as reliable as a wood-burning stove, and instantly recognizable as a... well, as a bottle of Tabasco sauce.
Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize quality when you’re so familiar and accustomed to your own version of it. I would suggest it’s the same for you as it is for me. Perhaps it’s time we bring an outsider, maybe a customer, to our businesses to help us recognize our business qualities or our personal qualities. Let’s take that opportunity not to highlight our successes, as nice as they are, but to remind ourselves of how we got there. Ask what was the process that led us to quality? What was the driver for us to achieve it, and do we still have what it takes to get us there again?
My day trip to a little factory inspired me to get an outsider to look at my business. This week I’m asking three outsiders to visit me: an overseas colleague, a supplier, and a customer. To each one I will be posing the same question: What qualities do you see? This will help me start to understand what, where, and how we achieved these qualities in the past. It will be a starting point for creating quality or updating my processes, for sustaining and improving our quality achievements.
I love my work in quality. In what other role could you have such a wonderful opportunity to promote growth, all from a little red stick seen on a day trip?