from the discomfort Zone: Process obsession

from the discomfort Zone: Process obsession

German process obsession translates to providing outstanding value to end customers when they are paying for it.

Germans still wear the badge for the world’s best process and quality of any engineering production. (Source: Reuters)
Germans still wear the badge for the world’s best process and quality of any engineering production. (Source: Reuters)

Hard-core German discipline and process obsession that’s respected the world over is what I’ve learnt through experience. I apply this learning to all our consulting solutions, providing ingenious customer centricity to projects.

While working on a global project in end 1980s, three of my French colleagues and I went to Hamburg to meet one of our German clients for a project review. Scheduled to finish by 12.30 pm, our meeting stretched to 1 pm. As we were getting up, the company caterer entered the room to place some steaming hot food. We exchanged happy glances, we were terribly hungry by then.

“There’s no food invitation for a meeting that ends at 12.30 pm,” is what we were informed. Obviously the lunch was coming for the next meeting’s participants. Disappointed, we headed outside to savour famous German sauerkraut and sausage called currywurst, a popular snack in Hamburg.

Herta Heuwer invented currywurst after World War II when British soldiers in Germany left her some ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and curry powder. Mixing these she created currywurst, that’s become such a rage that a museum is dedicated to it —Deutsches Currywurst Museum, which estimates that Germans eat 800 million currywursts per year!


Unlike in other Western countries, German restaurants did not accept credit card payment then, so we had to find an ATM machine. Many German outlets didn’t believe in dealing with plastic money. They preferred to see hard cash at the end of every day. I later understood that Germany’s economy was the strongest because they followed stringent financial credit processes.

After a month, when we returned to this same company for a 1 pm meeting, sure enough, a great lunch was laid out. We first enjoyed our meal with the client team before starting the meeting. This kind of German discipline is not something that Latin societies like France, Italy, Portugal or Spain were habituated to.

On another occasion, I travelled to a German factory to finish a few product design prototypes. This was a French project, but everyone in Europe knows that the best quality prototyping can only be achieved in Germany. I planned to be there for three days of supervision. Unfortunately, on the first afternoon, their production suddenly stopped. It was a crisis, they felt extremely embarrassed and shamefaced.

The company’s senior management profusely apologised to me for the mishap and subsequent delay. I tried to assuage their discomfiture saying machines can sometimes go awry and that I would extend my stay by a day. The next day, the company CEO came to inform me that some machine part had to be changed by one of their vendors, but that they were unable to find the root cause. He and his production managers were exceptionally worried about the root cause. This did not affect me as the work had resumed and was coming along well.

At the end of the second day, they stopped the production. I was escorted to a meeting room and informed that they had found the root cause. They went on to say that the machine should not be used for this work as they were unsure about the output quality. They discovered that the parts causing the problem were procured from Portugal, hence they could not trust those to produce the quality of prototyping work I was demanding. They were sincerely regretful about this inconvenience. Thereafter, on their own initiative, they took care of my stay, travel and the next visit to their factory. Our prototype production was delayed by 15 days. Back in France, I went to explain to my client, but found that the German factory CEO had already sent a letter of apology for the disorderly performance, and conveyed that they would give a cost reduction of 50 per cent for the delay. It sounded like this incident disturbed some kind of German religion.

When I returned to the factory after 15 days, everything was going well, everybody was happy. While working with the machine technician, we discussed the earlier catastrophe. It seems their vendor could not source a particular German part, so he had replaced it with a Portugal-made part, which conformed to European standards but not German standards, the technician said with a smile. He assured me they were now using German parts again and so no longer facing problems. German standards are very different, he said, they never fail. Out of curiosity, I asked why. He explained that all kinds of torture tests are done on German tools or machinery before they go to market. In Germany, sub-standard quality is instantly rejected. “In Germany, machine error is considered a human error and not tolerated,” he said.

At the age of 35, when my unique customer centricity expertise was gaining custom and spreading to clients in South and North America and European countries, I understood from Germany that strategy had to be intertwined with process and discipline in execution. In various countries, in whatever brand or industrial design I have been working in since, I have incorporated German process obsession while boiling down unique customer centricity from customer insights and local market experiences to strategy to final execution.

German process obsession translates to providing outstanding value to end customers when they are paying for it. Other European factories I’ve visited for ensuring design output from the machine would all confidently certify their own precision quality and process at a manufacturing level through the window of the German machines they use. Even with the invasion of Chinese proficiency in manufacturing, Germans still wear the badge for the world’s best process and quality of any engineering production. Their collective discipline makes the Germans process obsessive. In Germany, the interpretation of process standards and people quality at work is the same. My great learning was that without addressing stringent process quality standard in delivery, surpassing customer expectation can never be achieved. Your product and service cannot create an emotional connect to customers without having this outstanding quality that Germany stands for.

Shombit Sengupta is a global consultant on unique customer centricity strategy to execution excellence for top management. Reach him at