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The root of German efficiency
A little while ago, I wrote about the differences in productivity and efficiency across countries. It turns out that when it comes to productivity, the countries that top the list are Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany and Austria. In other words, ‘Germanic’ cultures. Which made a friend of mine ask me if I had ever examined why Germans and their neighbours are so much more efficient? He even suggested there might be a bestselling book idea there. You know, The Japanese art of cleaning up, the Danish art of feeling cosy, the German art of getting stuff done (though he didn’t quite use the word ‘stuff’).
Being German, I don’t really know why we are more efficient than other nations. And don’t expect German efficiency all the time. I am talking here about national averages. There are clearly large differences between individuals in every country.
But after giving it some thought, I came down to one key trait that is valued more in Germany than it seems to be valued in other countries. And I think this trait may explain a significant part of why Germans are stereotypically efficient.
Focus on the process not the result
This trait is, of course, the focus on process. Germans and many of their neighbours are famously obsessed with processes. And there is something really good about processes. They take longer to establish, but once established, they save you a lot of time and allow you to constantly improve your product or service.
When I hire young analysts with little or no professional experience, one thing that I am adamant about is that they always, ALWAYS, will create Excel spreadsheets or other tools that can be updated with one or two clicks. No manual copy and paste please, no changing numbers by hand or any of that nonsense. The natural way for people to handle a request is to assume you will only do that once, so you create a spreadsheet and you simply copy the data into the cells you need, you maybe create a chart or a table based on that data and you copy the result into an email. If the same or a similar request comes a couple of months later, you update the data by hand, copy the new data into the cells, adjust the chart to include any new data and then send it out again. The result: you waste a lot of time on unproductive activities.
Instead, I teach people to always have a download button to the data source you are using, so if the same request comes again, I just have to click on that update button. Also, I never, NEVER, have any hardcoded numbers in my spreadsheets. Everything is calculated via a formula and thus automatically adjusts to the newly downloaded data. And as for charts and tables, who says you have to limit the area for chart data only to the ten rows that contain your latest data? Make it as large as possible so if new data comes in, the chart automatically shows the updated values.
And then, once I have created that spreadsheet, I give it a systematic name and save it in a place that I can easily remember and where I can find it again in a few seconds even if I have not accessed that file in a year.
One thing that I cannot get my head around is that so many people don’t follow these simple rules, even though they make your life so much easier and save you so much time. When I took over the responsibilities of my current job from my predecessors, I took on the task of updating a monthly publication full of charts and tables. This monthly publication was about 50 pages long but to update it, I had to manually update about 60 files in eight or nine different folders and then manually copy the results into a Word file. My predecessor took about three to four days each month to create this publication. That is roughly 20% of your monthly work spent on mindlessly updating files and copy-pasting charts and tables!
Doing this was so infuriating to me that I worked on simplifying the process as much as I could without rebuilding everything from scratch. Today, this monthly publication has expanded by a factor of three in content but is updated within one working day. And it still infuriates me that it takes so long and requires so much manual labour. In comparison, a monthly chartbook I designed from scratch is 140 pages long and driven by four Excel files. It takes 60 seconds to update the four Excel files and another 60 seconds for the PowerPoint to suck in the charts and tables. It’s not rocket science.
Addendum: Be on time
Processes make you efficient and save you a lot of time. But in today’s workplace, we work in teams and that brings with it another source of unproductive time: Waiting for the input from other people.
You probably know the stereotype that when a German says a meeting starts at 3pm, you are supposed to be there at 2.55pm. If you show up at 3.05pm you will be greeted by a room full of people giving you the stare of death. Why? Because you being five minutes late cost the other 12 people in the room five minutes of their workday. Thus, your tardiness just destroyed a full manhour of work.
I am really adamant of submitting all my work within the deadline given and nothing makes me angrier than people who miss their deadlines and then make everybody wait. I am not high enough on the flagpole, so I can’t always do this, but when I can get away with it, I will simply ignore any input I get from people after the deadline has passed. If they are supposed to deliver a text at 8am on a given day and they deliver the finished product at 8.15am, I will simply send it back to them and tell them that they just did all this work for nothing because I will not use it. Trust me, the next time I set a deadline I will get the input on time and not a minute late and I just saved myself a lot of unproductive hours in the future.
One anecdote I like to tell is the difference between German and Swiss trains. German trains are frequently late and really are the opposite of the efficiency and punctuality that is so often associated with Germans. Meanwhile, Swiss trains are on time all the time. And when I say on time, I mean, on time. When I lived in Switzerland, I got nervous when a train was two minutes late. But why are Swiss trains on time while German trains give British Rail a run for its money in terms of delays? The answer is that Swiss trains are managed to guarantee arrival times, while German trains are managed to guarantee connections. Sounds like not much of a difference, but it means that if a higher classed train in Germany (e.g. an intercity express train) is delayed, the lower classed connection trains (i.e. all the local trains at each stop of the intercity) have to wait for this train and thus will be late as well. The result is that two or three passengers make their connection and the rest of the train is mad because they are late.
In Switzerland, if a higher classed train is delayed, the lower classed trains will not wait for it. Their job is to leave on time so that they can make their designated arrival times. The result is that two or three passengers are mad because they miss their connection but a whole train full of passengers is happy that they are on time.
Which one is the better process?