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The German Model and the Price of Perfection

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"The German economic model is superior to all others," a German senior vice president of a large enterprise software company told me the other day. "Eating with non-family members is 'too intimate,'" a young German business psychology student recently explained to me. Although it may not be readily apparent, these two statements illustrate Germany's current prowess -- and its paucity. Thus, the question whether the German Model is the key to economic success is vitally important.

The German economy has been humming along at a respectable 0.7 to 1.0% growth. It remains Europe's leader, and the senior VP is justifiably proud of this. While a debt-wracked U.S. and Euro Zone, and endemically corrupt India and China are held back from attaining their full potential, the German engine steams ahead, driven by its Mittelstand -- thousands of small to mid-sized companies, usually family-owned and most specialized in engineering and manufacturing. Their ubiquitous products, ranging from state-of-the-art electronic switches to auto components, from cutting-edge lenses to superb automation technology, have helped make Germany, with an aging and shrinking population of 82 million, the world's third largest export nation, a hair behind China and the U.S.

It is fashionable to extol the triumphs and virtues of the German model. "Made in Germany" is one of the greatest global brands, standing for top quality workmanship. German Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoys lecturing others about her country's mighty socio-economic system and its values of reliability, thrift and diligence. If only other nations, the argument goes -- the Greeces and Spains of the world -- would adopt this model, they too would enjoy sustained growth.

As impressive as German engineering is, we foreigners living here know the price of this perfection: grim faces, appalling service, a lack of spontaneity, an anal attention to detail and an almost complete lack of soft skills. Germans do steel well. But they are extremely weak on the softer things of the world, like people. They do not make brilliant educators, therapists or nurses, for instance. To build their wonderful machines, Germans have to be as they are, stressing technical precision over messy, unpredictable, illogical people with all of their complicated emotions.

The German workplace is where you come to utilize your intense training gleaned from technical universities and a highly developed system of exams and internships, some lasting as long as three years. This produces a nation of specialists -- but few smiles. Germans are what they have studied. Work is not "fun"; it is a serious matter. And slow. Being "perfect" means painstaking attention to detail to reduce risk and errors, which is why my marvelous pen, produced by Mittelstand champion Lamy GmbH, took seven years to design and produce. You see, its engineers had to get its unique ceramic, gold-plated barrel just right. And they did. Little matter that the pen was ultimately a flop: it was a perfect flop.

What foreigners in Germany are confronted with is the cold, expressionless exterior self -- the expert professional with a stamped certificate to prove it. Germans seldom, if ever, allow outsiders into the tightly-sealed inner cores of their personalities for this is the preserve of family and close friends, the "intimate" sphere which the university student was talking about.
Thus, it is futile for Germans to admonish people from relationship-oriented countries, such as Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, the Middle East, India, etc -- actually, most of the earth's 7 billion people -- to adopt German values and methods. As one American business development director explained to me, "We don't want gold-plating; we're satisfied with 80% quality" -- a phrase that would stun a German engineer. "We love German products," an Omani CEO told me, "but not the Germans." Indeed, according to the 2011 CIA World Fact Book ranking of national average life expectancy, Italy placed 10th, , Spain 14th . And the "superior" Germans? 27th. So why would an Italian or Spaniard "Germanize" their values, mindsets and characters just to become more efficient at the workplace? There are things of greater importance in life, they obviously feel. Acknowledging this, last year Merkel admitted that German attempts to integrate non-Germans have "utterly failed."

German pride in their system is justified as long as this does not turn into arrogant complacency. Moreover, there are questions as to how long Germany will be able to hold on to its export heavyweight title. One disturbing indicator is in innovation. Being a risk-adverse culture Germans excel in "copycat" or "clone" businesses, simply replicating the models of other cultures, perfecting what others have trail-blazed. Examples of this abound, such as 9flats, a German online marketplace that copied most of its ideas and services from Airbnb, a U.S. company. Politically, Germany tends to be passive and indecisive, starkly illustrated by its failure to take the lead in the Euro Zone crisis and its tortured response to the Arab Spring. Ultimately, Germany could become a nerdy land of engineers where others shop for outsourced specialized solutions, and then go straight back home again.

Is the German economic model remarkable successful? Undeniably. Is it suited for your culture? Certainly! All you have to do is become like them -- and pay the price of perfection.