Get abstract vs. Get imbedded

A few years back I interviewed an American expert on processes. He works in a German multinational company with a very large presence in the U.S. He and his German colleagues had been working for months on aligning their processes.

The Germans wanted very much to harmonize the processes. “harmonize” is a dirty word for the Americans. It conjures up scenes of horror. They were making very little progress. On the contrary, they were bickering. And how did the American process guy respond to my question about deductive or inductive? “What is this a university seminar in philosophy?”

He then explained. As the process expert in the organization he stays in close contact with those colleagues who move the business forward, those in the “engine room.” He knows their world, their problems, what’s going on. He accompanies, observes, asks questions, listens. Then he reflects, proposes, presents, discusses. Modifying existing processes, or introducing entirely new ones, is based on knowledge and understanding of the situation “on the ground.”

The collaboration between the doers and the process expert is close and integrated. Process people need to know the business, the key people, and the work, before they can address how the work is done.

As an American, I understand this. But, isn’t it critical that the process person take a step back, get some distance, in order to understand and analyze it all? Isn’t abstraction – getting abstract – the prerequisite for solid analysis?

Could it be that getting abstract is so self-stated in the German context, that they neglect to explain to their American colleagues that they also do their homework, that they also do the field work, interviewing and understanding those who do the work day in and day out?

I suspect that the German colleagues present their results – modified or new processes – straight from the process laboratory so to speak, after already having gotten abstract on the key factors – let’s call them principles.

This German approach implies – therefore understood by all involved – that there is a natural, and healthy, tension between getting into the details of how the work is done, and gaining enough distance from them in order to understand them. 

The logic is: “The deeper I go into the details, or get pulled into the details, the more difficult it will be to recognize the drivers, the key factors, the patterns. I need distance. I need my laboratory.”

If the German approach to processes is difficult for Americans to grasp, and therefore accept, what makes it even more difficult is their impression that their German colleagues do not understand the American market, how Americans do business. They see processes coming from the German process lab which don’t work in the U.S., that can potentially damage the business.

That big stick is wielded by Americans often and swiftly: “You folks don’t know our market, how we work, what it means to be successful here. You failed here in the U.S. with your German approach. That’s why you acquired us. So please don’t make changes to our processes, don’t introduce any new processes, without first speaking with us and then allowing us to adapt what you propose to our situation!”

„No taxation without representation!“ That was one of the battle cries of the American colonists. They revolted. The British, a world power then, were defeated. The United States of America was formed.

Get abstract vs. Get imbedded