Monday, July 5, 2010

Research, Development, and Engineering: How Germans Work with Flaws

“You cannot only look at how expensive Germany is—what you get is quality, strong motivation and extreme flexibility,” Mr. Winterkorn, Chief Executive of Volkswagen told the Financial Times recently.

Yet, what the CEO of Europe’s biggest carmaker perceives as a strength, many industry analysts and investors assign to Germany’s “flawed business model: good technology and a stable of brands paired with inefficient production, a spider’s web of vested labor and political interests and an almost purely Teutonic management.” (

These observations become very relevant today when businesses are looking for ways to update their business models abandoning the old staple of “shareholder value” and seeking instead a more comprehensive approach to production, one that takes into account all stakeholders’ interests. The cohesiveness between management, unions, and shareholders in the German business model strikes a chord with those who, among business owners and CEOs, are questioning their own research, development, and engineering approaches.

Applied research: The most creative individuals on your team are drawn to long-term projects beyond the current state of your technology or strategy. Learn how to shift their focus back to short-term research and product development. This implies their ability to work on their own to develop new ideas and to supervise other production employees.

Development process: While quality is at the epicenter of the German business model, it may become destructive when it encourages perfectionism. Well-designed details and efficient engineering should not be equated with stalling perfectionism. Allow the perfectionists on your team (who are not necessarily among the most creative thinkers of the previous category) time for experimentation after the desired quality of your product has been reached.

Engineering management: Define the strengths of those on your engineering team and experiment with sub-teams that you can direct to either exploration of new technology or new heights of perfection.

Technical knowledge: One among the founding members on your team should be the expert in technology and its applications and keep current as the company is growing so that he/she is able to supervise the entire research/development/production process.

This discussion is really about your own ability to understand the research and development process as it relates to your product but also as it relates to other branches of management, for example workers’ unions, customers’ reception (and therefore marketing), and industry conditions (and therefore long-term strategy). What has been perceived as a flaw within German industrial production is actually the management’s foresight to work along various constituents and not towards increasing shareholders’ value exclusively.

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