Berlin – Testing vs. Engineering

Context

An American Fortune25 company. Energy sector. Industrial and engineering. Acquired a German competitor. Post-merger integration is completed. They are about one year into the marriage. The most important design engineering group sits in the U.S. The most sophisticated test bed and technical staff are located in Germany.

Problem

The American and German colleagues are fighting over the details of the testing. The U.S. does not feel well served by Germany: “They’re arrogant, don’t listen, want to tell us how the tests should be done. And they want equal access to all of the data the tests produce. They don’t realize that we’re the customer. We’re paying for them! If they keep up this nonsense we’ll have no choice but to go external.”

Their German colleagues see it very differently: “The Americans are incredibly pushy. They think this is some kind of master-slave relationship. They fly over to Germany, sit themselves down at the controls, and want to run the show. Simply absurd. Don’t they realize that they need us?”

The internal fighting is beginning to cost the company serious money. The initial test results were inconsistent and unusable. The testing schedule had to be extended by three months. The test bed with its highly-paid staff is expensive to run. And other corporate-internal teams are waiting in line to have their tests run.

Cause

The root cause of the problem was cultural in nature. The Americans, indeed, see the project as a corporate-internal business relationship. For the Germans, however, it’s a collaboration among colleagues in the same company. Customer-supplier versus partnership at eye-level.

Once they got into the details of the project the cultural differences became even more pronounced. The Americans wanted speed. Germans never sacrifice quality. Americans tried to negotiate internal transfer pricing. The Germans smiled politely, but said no.

The Americans proposed a flexible schedule. Germans plan from A to Z before they get going. The U.S. side warned time and again that their internal customer was becoming impatient. Germany took it seriously, then requested to interact directly with that department. The Americans were not amused by the request.

Solution

The project was on a straight path to failure. Everyone knew it. Nobody wanted it to happen. They went off-site. Five Americans and five Germans. For two full days. Germany. Berlin. Near the test site. The tension was high.

Day 1 was exclusively about cultural differences. Between customer-supplier relationships in Germany versus in the U.S. They addressed the key aspects of that relationship. Point for point. In detail. Mandate. Methods. Process. Schedule. Quality. Pricing. Interfaces. Decision making. Etc. Not about their specific project, instead generically, using examples and analogies. It was an eye-opener for all involved. At the end of the day they were exhilirated. And exhausted.

Day 2 focused on the details of their specific project. The details of their collaboration. As colleagues. In the same company. There was a whole new spirit in the room. They had begun to understand each other. And to understand why they had been at each other’s throats.

Value

They had clarified, at a high level, key aspects of their collaboration. Not always in agreement, often agreeing to disagree, but knowing why and accepting it. But in the critical areas they had reached consensus.

They found ways to tighten up the schedule by an entire month. The Americans no longer tried to reduce the price. Their German colleagues accepted a higher degree of process flexibility. Most importantly, however, each understood where the other side was coming from. They became colleagues with a heightened awareness of deeper-lying differences in their approaches. They had made peace with each other.