You got it wrong – Act 1

Meeting the man

I was very tired. Had just executed a three-day management workshop. The participants were active, asking good questions, challenging me when it was legitimate, demanding that we go deeper whenever I had hit a nerve.

I try to pack as much into a day as possible, probably overdoing it. My body was still on German time. It was seven p.m. U.S. East Coast. For me it was one o´clock in the morning.

I got out of my rental car, walked across the parking lot, went through the entrance of the restaurant. The cold air hit me hard. Why does it always have to be so frigid in American restaurants, buildings, other public spaces?

I’m in the Southeast of the U.S. It is early summer. Very warm, sunny, the breeze too soft to cool anything or anyone down. Finally I would meet the person whose organization had been giving me work for the last six months.

His company: a major German multinational, which just a few years before had been merged with an American competitor. His organization: a thousand-person engineering organization, with two major locations. One in Germany. The other in the U.S. He is German. I am American.

Question
How do you think the meeting will go?

You got it wrong – Act 2

”I think you have it wrong.“

The hostess brings me to him. One of those places where you step up to sit at the table. The place was packed, all sorts of ages represented, the music surprisingly not disruptive. I had never met the man, but sure had heard much about him, and was both curious and nervous.

We shook hands. His meaty, firm, dry and warm. The forearm brown and muscular. Mine? A bit pale, thin, but taut. He had a big smile on his face. Friendly, relaxed, anything but self-important.

As the head of a critical engineering organization in a division of one of Germany‘s largest and most famous global companies, he had every reason to be formal, intimidating, testing, as if to say „I client. You service provider. Me master. You slave.“

Nope. None of that. All signals were positive. At least those in the first few minutes. Then he picks a fight with me. Verbally, intellectually, of course.

„You know, Herr Magee, I was against you doing any work for my organization. But my people had reported such good things about you, that I just let you continue working with them. You know, I think it‘s all about corporate and not national culture. I think you have it wrong.“

Questions
So this is not any kind of a master-slave relationship.But then he challenged me right from the start. What’s happening here? What’s the basic nature of a customer-supplier relationship in the German business context?

Interview Quotes – Act 1

German colleague about American processes

„The senior management wants us to harmonize our processes cross-Atlantic. We have been working on it already for one year. It is a really big problem. I think sometimes that we and our American colleagues talk about totally different things when we sit down to integrate these complex structures.

We have our thinking about how process should look. Based on this we have our Verfahrensanweisungen and Arbeitsanweisungen, sort of like processes and procedures. Anyways, those are the words they use in the U.S.

If we are honest, we Germans think many times that the Americans have no real processes. If they do, we do not see them or understand them. Yes, they do write down a lot of things and have many books with lots of detailed steps written down. But either they do not understand them or they do not follow them! Everything is very unsystematic. We call them long to-do lists or checklists.

If they do follow their own processes, they do it in a strange way. Often they jump over important steps, or they do steps out of order. No process discipline. What we really dislike is when they do not follow the set process, but at the same time do not tell us that they do this! We have no time to adjust what we do or to react.

Sometimes they hold themselves to their to-do lists very exactly, as if they were not competent enough to make their own decisions, other times they just go in another direction away from the process we agreed to. All very confusing.

I think sometimes, how are we to achieve good results when our work processes are so full of chaos? I think our process are very professional and scientific and that we should use them. Our US-colleagues do not want to see it this way, however.

They are very good, but a bit stubborn. We will harmonize our processes. It will take more time and many will be angry a lot. But they will see at some time that their processes should be adapted to ours. Then all will be ok.“

Question
Are these comments plausible to you?

Interview Quotes – Act 2

American colleague about German processes

„Our German colleagues takes their processes a bit too seriously. They always want to talk about our processes, as if the entire success of our technology and our company were dependent on processes. Sure they are important, but more crucial is whether they help us reach our goals.

I mean, processes are nothing more than tools. If they work, great. If not, either modify or get rid of them. Heck, we have processes that frankly noone really pays attention to. Often they are outdated or things change so rapidly that we have to react quickly.

Their German processes are so complicated. It’s as if they want to connect everything that exists into one big system. If you take a look at some of their graphs you’ll see this thinking. They’re true works of art! It can take an hour to figure them out, following all of the solid and dotted lines, the arrows, colors and numbers. Great to be systematic in thinking. Key, however, is to break the complexity down so that you can move forward.

What none of us has quite figured out is when our German colleagues stick to a process and when they deviate. Sometimes when it is clear to us that we have to stick literally to a certain process or procedure one of our German colleagues goes off and interprets it they way he feels.

And the other way around, too. I mean, there are steps in some processes where it is clear, you have to interpret, or even in somes cases simply skip over. That’s when an exasperated German colleague comes along and demands that we stick to the process.

Oh, and by the way, never assume that your German colleagues have documented their processes. When we asked to see their documentation, they said that they didn’t have it. At first we didn’t believe them. Then we realized that they were telling the truth. Nothing, or very little, was documented!

And to top it off, they did all they could to avoid having to write down how they work. Very strange. Once you do get your hands on their documentation be prepared for a surprise. They are short, totally general and the procedures sometimes aren’t there! We all swore that they were hiding again.

Anyway, we’ve lost a lot of time in our team, and I suspect in the company, fighting over processes. Now we’re supposed to integrate them, but that will be a long hard ordeal. Nobody on this side of the Atlantic is thrilled with the prospect of using the German processes. We all think we should use ours. They can use theirs.“

Question
Are these comments plausible to you?

You got it wrong – Act 3

”Your thinking is naíve and superficial.“

Was it a slug to the jaw or pat on the back? Too tired and too unprofessional to control myself, I snapped back that he was the one who has it wrong. „And what‘s more, your thinking is naíve and superficial.“

Now, for those who have little or no experience with Germans, you can‘t hit back much harder at a German than to say those kinds of things. It goes to the heart of their self-understanding.

Tired and unprofessional, yes, but unfamiliar with Germans, no. They like to rough it up intellectually, mentally, with ideas. Often on purpose just to test the other person. Again, we had just met. My beer, or was it juice, hadn‘t even arrived at the table.

No small talk. No pleasantries. No „how is the training going?“ His organization would shell out a large amount of Euros to me in that first year, and here I was slapping the guy right back.

He ate it up. I did, too. We debated with each other for well over two and a half hours. It went on to be the beginning of a four-year engagement, and an inspiring four-year conversation.

But wait, in our very first meeting, in the very first minutes, we basically said to each other: „You got it wrong.“ Shouldn‘t that have killed my consulting engagement, killed the business relationship?

Questions
It did not kill the business relationship. In fact, it strengthened it. How so? What is the German logic operating here?

Interview Quotes – Act 3

The Cost of Cultural Misunderstanding

If you work in and across the American and the German business cultures, the quotes above might sound familiar to you. You most likely know that there are fundamental differences between the process philosophies of the two cultures. And that these differences can make cross-Atlantic collaboration difficult, regardless of how capable and willing American and German colleagues are to collaborate.

Let’s address what it can cost a team, a department, a division, or even an entire company, when the two cultures are not aware of the differences, when they do not understand the influence or impact of those differences, on their ability two work together effectively.

Identify the most important process within your organization. It is that process which has the highest level of impact on overall success. Now imagine that you have two camps within the organization.

For the one camp the process is good. It’s their process. They have always worked with it. For the other camp, however, the process is foreign. They are not familiar with it, do not feel comfortable with it. Nor do they think it is effective.

What are the negative effects on the company?

Productivity
The one side will not work effectively. Possibly they will try to ignore, change or even subvert the process. You know your own organization. What would that cost it in terms of lost productivity?

Work Outcomes
And what impact will the situation have on the actual work results produced by the organization?
Estimate the cost to the organization when its most important process is neither understood, accepted nor lived in a uniform, or near uniform, way.

Collaboration
And the impact on overall collaboration? If there is lack of unity, lack of cohesion, regarding the most important process, to what degree will cross-Atlantic cooperation suffer?

Let’s get specific. What does a decrease of 5% in all three areas cost the organization: productivity, work outcomes, day-to-day collaboration?

Now take that number – in U.S. dollars or in Euros – and multiply that times the number or organizations within the company whose success is based on Americans and Germans working well together.

Question
Anything missing?

You got it wrong – Act 4

The customer isn’t king

Germans reject any relationship which even hints at a master-slave relationship. As suppliers, vendors, consultants – call them what you want – Germans want first and foremostly to be treated respectfully.

Seldom are they willing to sacrifice their self-respect, their self-understanding, doing whatever the customer demands, accepting anything the customer throws at them, even if it is profitable to do so. Germans would rather turn away the business. For them, the customer is not a king.

And here‘s the flipside of that logic. The German customer doesn‘t want a slave. They want an expert with backbone, who focuses on what is best for the customer, even if it involves telling the customer what she or he does not want to hear.

Even if doing that can threaten the business relationship. German customers don‘t see themselves as king. They‘re customers. „We have a need. You have the expertise. Let‘s work together.“

And Germans especially respect people who have the ability to dig deep, to „drill through the thickest boards“ as one of their common figures of speech goes. They want to be challenged, their ideas and operating assumptions.

When a German hires someone – whether as an employee or an external service provider – they want that person to know more than they do. It‘s implicit in the transaction that there is a gap to be filled, an area where they do not have the knowhow.

During my four-year engagement for this customer I had witnessed on several occasions – and had heard of several other – how he treated folks who did not challenge him, who were not prepared, who kowtowed to him, who did not “stick to their guns.” It wasn’t a very pretty scene.

Questions
Is this plausible to you? Would this approach work in the U.S. business context?

You got it wrong – Act 5

We accepted each other

My client’s expertise, and his organization‘s, was engineering. But they were a product of two companies which had been merged a few years before – one German, the other American.

My expertise was in explaining where Germans and Americans, who happen to be engineers, diverge in their fundamental thinking, where these divergences could cause them problems, and how to handle them.

So we went into battle with each other during that dinner on a warm American summer evening. My message was clear: A corporation‘s culture is deeply imbedded in its national culture. Even if it has become global, it has its roots somewhere, in some country, in some national culture.

He listened, was intrigued, also had good arguments for his point of view. The debate became secondary, however. He had accepted me. And I him.

Questions
Which runs deeper, national or corporate culture? In other words, which is the more fundamental driver?

You got it wrong – Act 6

The Cost of Cultural Misunderstanding

Let us assume that there are, indeed, fundamental differences between the American and the German approaches to the customer-supplier business relationship. And let us assume that the difference illustrated above is one of those differences.

High-Level Relationship Management
Your company has people at high levels managing the most important business relationships: with your customers and with suppliers. If the cultural differences are not understood, what effect do they have on your company’s business relationships? What does it cost the company?

Company-Internal Business Relationships
Just as critical to your company’s overall success is the complex web of company-internal business relationships. These are the hundreds – depending on the size of the corporation, perhaps thousands – of daily interactions between teams, departments and divisions. They are collaborative relationships involving transactions, so-called hand-offs.

What negative impact could the cultural differences have on those collaborative relationships, on their productivity? What does it cost the company?

You and Your Team
Now ask these same questions of your company-internal business relationship, and those of your team. What does it cost you and your team?

Question
Are we missing anything?

Roger and Karl surprised – Act 1

An Acquisition

A German company acquired an American company. Industrial sector: complex technology, sophisticated engineering, plant construction demanding expert project management.

Some departments are to be combined as soon as possible. Other departments will be merged over time. Some will remain separate for the time being.

The core of the combined company is its technology, its knowhow, its engineering prowess. And design engineering is the core of that core. Executive management wants rapid integration of the two respective design engineering organizations.

Questions
Will cultural differences between Americans and Germans play a role in the integration? If so, in what ways?