Process vs. Relationship

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today on October 27, 2018. See all articles here.

Germans believe that processes — how the work is done — is the key to success. Americans, however, favor relationships, or how to gain and retain customers.

By tradition, Germany is more a culture of artisans (Handwerkerkultur) than of traders (Händlerkultur). The Germans have always made things. And they believe that process — how the work is done — is the key to success. Good processes lead to good products, bad processes to bad ones.

One well-known German manager, Klaus-Hardy Mühdeck, the CIO of ThyssenKrupp, is even nicknamed the “process pope” and has changed his title to Chief Process Officer. Because processes govern the internal workings of a company, whoever has the say over process has the say over the company. Process is power. Germans want the power.

The United States, by contrast, is a culture of traders more than of artisans. Americans do make things, but they also buy and sell things, including whole companies. Americans believe that business revolves around the needs of the customer. Good relationships lead to good customers, bad relationships lead to no customers. And because those relationships drive what the company does, whoever has the say over relationships has the say over the company. Relationships are power. Americans want the power.

The more product-oriented a company is, the less important are its customer relationships and the lower the prestige of its teams in business development, marketing, and sales. This is why in many German companies scientists and engineers are the kings. German-engineered products should sell themselves. Because Americans allegedly don’t understand this primacy of product, and therefore process, Germans are happy to leave marketing, sales etc. to the Americans.

The more customer-oriented a company is, the less important are science and engineering. Which is why in US companies the kings are often in business development, relationship management, marketing or sales. Products don’t sell themselves, they are sold by people. Because Germans don’t understand this market- and customer-orientation, Americans are often happy to leave internal debates about processes to the Germans.

My advice to Germans: If processes are crucial to success, convince your American colleagues to take processes seriously. Don’t create processes without involving them. Otherwise, you’ll produce German processes which won’t work in the US. If process is power, share that power.

My advice to Americans: If interacting with customers is key to success, get your German colleagues involved. Give them full access to your strategic thinking, about how you go to market. Involve them in your most important business relationships. Take them with you to the customers. If relationships are power, share that power.


Pragmatism

Tool: A handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task; something as an instrument or apparatus used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession; an element of a computer program that activates and controls a particular function; a means to an end; one that is used or manipulated by another. From Old English tōl to prepare for use. First known use 12th century.

Enable: To provide with the means or opportunity; to make possible, practical, or easy; to cause to operate; to give legal power, capacity, or sanction to.

Pragmatic: Relating to matters of fact or practical affairs, often to the exclusion of intellectual or artistic matters; practical as opposed to idealistic; relating to or being in accordance with philosophical pragmatism. Latin pragmaticus, skilled in law or business, from Greek pragmatikos,from pragmat-, pragma deed, from prassein to do.

Pragmatism: A philosophical movement first given systematic expression by Charles Sanders Pierce and William James and later by John Dewey. Pragmatists emphasize the practical function of knowledge, as an instrument for adapting to reality and controlling it. Pragmatism, like empiricism, emphasizes experience over a priori reasoning (deductive, using presumptions).

Pragmatism holds that truth is to be found in the process of verification. Pragmatists interpret ideas as instruments and plans of action rather than as images of reality. More specifically, ideas are suggestions and anticipations of possible conduct. They are hypotheses or forecasts of what will result from a given action.


Navel-gazing

Useless or excessive self-contemplation; self-absorption, self-centeredness, self-concern, self-interest, self-involvement, self-preoccupation, self-regard. Navel-gazing.

Too much self. Too little other. Self being the process, how the work is done. Other being those who should benefit from the work to be done, the output, the product or service.

The deeper Germans discuss and debate how the work is done – process – the more their American colleagues fear a turn from the outward to the inward. The link is lost between process (how the work is done) and the results.

Americans often have the sense that their German counterparts believe that process can solve any problem, address any challenge, even those which do not lend themselves to process. Leadership. Decision making. Business relationships. Process works with the measurable, the quantifiable, but less so to the immeasurable, the unquantifiable.

For Americans, process is a tool. Apply where applicable.


Day planners

Early in American history, it was not uncommon for people to use almanacs as day planners. Many of the founding fathers, including George Washington, would buy almanacs and then add their own blank pages to serve as a diary and record of their daily activities.

The first book that was specifically marketed for use as a day planner was published in Philadelphia in 1773 by Robert Aitken. It was called Aitken’s General American Register, and the Gentleman’s and Tradesman’s Complete Annual Account Book and Calendar, for the Pocket or Desk for the Year of our Lord 1773, and was unsuccessful in the publishing world. Nevertheless, by 1850 day planners and their various incarnations (diaries, scrapbooks, ledgers, account books, etc.) were extremely popular.

In 1900, business innovator John Wanamaker decided to produce day planners with his store catalog and advertisements from other companies. These planners became very widespread and were a contributing factor to Wanamaker’s business success.

Today day planners are still extremely popular. Although sales of paper planners are dropping, sales of electronic planners are strong, and there are still many organizations that successfully market day planners to the American public.


Checklists

Checklists. To-do lists. Cookbook-like recipes. “Americans don’t really understand what they are doing and why. They are not trained, nor are they allowed, to think independently. There is no real mitdenken, thinking with.”

Not uncommon sentiments among Germans who interact with Americans. A misperception. Partly. Partly not.

Checklists are practical, pragmatic. They free up the mind to concentrate on more important things. They allow for self-supervision, for checking, if necessary for double-checking. They minimize unforced errors. They structure work.

For folks who do the same thing, the same way, time and again, for years, with the same colleagues, checklists surely are unnecessary. These folks can think for themselves, independently. People same. Think same. Do same.

But what about those who do different things, at different times, in different ways and with different people? Checklists become both tool and metaphor for how to manage the differences, the change, the flux.

America is constantly challenged by flux. An immigrant nation. Influx of peoples from different backgrounds, with different skill sets, levels of education. Some craftsmen. Others semi-literate. Some rooted to the land and permanent. Others who move every couple of years.

Add to this the American belief in learning by doing, and checklists – in the sense of detailed descriptions of how to do the work – become a necessity, a helpful tool, management’s assistant.

Germans learn the checklists in their extensive theoretical training. Duales Ausbildungsystem. Dual training. Over many years. Only then are they permitted to do the work. Americans learn just enough to be permitted to learn by doing. Same goal. Two approaches. Timing about the same.

Oh, and let’s not forget. Sometimes government bodies simply impose checklists.


Astronaut checklists

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is well-known for its excessive use of checklists. Over the history of this organization, checklists could be found placed all over its spacecraft, and covered everything from launch operations to spacewalk procedures and even to unlikely sudden multiple system failures. In fact, astronauts used so many checklists that Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins called his crew’s mission checklists the “fourth crew member.”

For the first few missions of a particular program (Apollo, Gemini, etc.) the astronauts have always been far less familiar with the checklists and standard procedures than the astronauts for later missions. This is because it was more likely that something unexpected would happen during the earlier missions, and the astronauts might need to “think on their feet” in order to stay alive.

In fact, it was somewhat common for the astronauts to modify their checklists “on the fly,” although they only did so reluctantly. Collins spoke about this reluctance during his post-flight briefing, saying “I don’t enjoy making changes to procedures. It seems like the crew only does that when they feel there’s some good need for it.”

Examples of NASA Checklist deviations:

Gemini 3 – the first manned Gemini mission, which had the primary goal of testing the new Gemini spacecraft. The astronauts deviated from the post landing checklist to accommodate for extra smoke from the thrusters.

Gemini 4 – the second manned Gemini mission, which included the first spacewalk by astronaut Edward H. White. Following White’s spacewalk the hatch initially failed to open, and the astronaut inside the capsule had to deviate from standard procedure in order help White to return to the spacecraft.

Mercury 9 – the last manned Mercury mission, in which the astronaut Gordon Cooper would remain in space for one full day. Electrical problems led to the failure of several systems, and as a result, Cooper prepared a revised checklist to finish his mission.

For Americans, checklists are guidelines more than fixed rules, and often are not taken very seriously. For example, NASA checklists are also places of amusement – for the Apollo 12 mission, the backup crew managed to sneak playboy pictures into the checklists which were attached to the wrists of the moonwalkers’ space suits.


Continuous improvement

Manufacturing automobiles is based on complex production processes. Chassis are formed out of high tensile steel, which are then fitted and painted. Each and every step in the process is made up of smaller, more exact process steps.

All of this cannot work without those involved following processes. Operating on checklists will not lead to road-worthy automobiles.

German cars are known worldwide for their quality, possibly the best in the world. Could that technical quality be based on the quality of processes? Could the strict adherence to well-defined processes be a key to success?


Manufacturing without compromise

How the German company innotool&greminger markets their medical products provides insight into how important internal processes – how the work is done – are to Germans.

Their website states Fertigung ohne Kompromisse: Perfektion im Produktionsprozess – literally Manufacturing without Compromise: Perfection in Production Processes. They then spell that out. 

“In medical diagnostics and therapy the key to quality of results is Handwerkszeug (the tools of craftsmanship). It is no different in the manufacturing of medical products.”

Our solutions are based on expert technical staff, high-performing physical plant and systems, and automated production, optimized for manufacturing medical implants and delicate instruments. With the help of CAD-CAM software we maximize the potential of our knowhow. We deepen that expertise via modernization and continual training of our staff. For quality doesn’t happen by itself.”

Instead of emphasizing the quality of their products, innotool&greminger focuses on the production processes which determine that quality.


Der Weg ist das Ziel

Der Weg ist das Ziel. The path is the goal. Eastern thinking. Not Western. But a segway into how Germans understand the importance of process (how the work is done).

Garantie. Guaranty. Kein Werkzeug. Not a tool. Germans would say that a final product is only as good as the process which led to it. Process. How the work is done. And a process is only as good as the product it produces. Zwei Seiten einer Medaille. Two sides of the same coin. Not a tool.

If you work with Germans, you’ll know how intense and constant their focus is on how the work should be done. You’ll experience discussion after discussion, meeting after meeting, debate after debate. It can appear as if they are obsessed with process. All this at the expense of the user, of the internal or external customer. It can appear to threaten the very purpose, and success, of the activity.

But wait. When Germans engage about how the work is done, they are, in fact, talking about the customer, about how best to serve the customer. Two sides of the same coin. If you get the process right, you get the end product right. For the customer. In the German context, talking process is talking customer. The Germans may not use the term “customer”, or the term “serve”, or “value”. But this doesn’t mean that they are not focused on it. Actions speak louder than words.

For Germans, true focus on the customer is focus on how to do the work right. The path is not the goal. In the West, the goal is the goal. The path gets you there. Chart that path carefully. Walk that path the right way. “The right way.” Lots of room for discussion there.


How the work is done

Germans are results-driven. The strength of their economy underscores this. For Germans work results and work processes are synonymous, inseparable, integrally linked with each other. Germans focus on the details of how the work is done.

Processes are, therefore, results. They are how the work is done. If something does not function properly, if a product has an imperfection, the Germans analyze rigorously how the work was completed.

All problems, product deficits, signs of diminished quality are from the German perspective a failure in work processes. If something new has been developed, Germans not look first at its benefits for the user, but how it is made. How something is done, processes, craftsmanship, approach is always the focus of Germans.