The engineering of success – what there is to learn from Germany

Porsche, VW and BMW are run by leaders with a deep passion and obsession

On Monday morning Australia time, I was up at 4.30am to head into the city to watch the FIFA World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina with a bunch of football mad friends. On the one hand the game was a close fought battle, but on the other there was a certain inevitability to the outcome. Whereas most countries had a roller-coaster trip through the tournament, Germany had done what Germany often does – got better and better and peaked at just the right time.

And so it came to pass. In the second half of extra time Germany scored a stunning goal and the World Cup was theirs for a fourth time. Only one other country has pulled this off before, Brazil – and Germany had demolished them along the way.

National football teams have a habit of mirroring the state of the countries they represent and so it was in this tournament: the mighty Brazil failed spectacularly, mirroring the tensions and fault lines that are coursing through what was once one of the world’s fastest growing emerging economies; The USA showed themselves to be highly resilient and determined, but just not quite strong enough to dominate the world; and Spain, a recently booming soccer super power looked to have fallen into a terrible recession.

The German team was no exception. While all round it European nations, rocked by the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis and the increasingly powers of globalization, have faltered and struggled, the German economy has gone from strength to strength. Their football team showed the same power of domination and resilience.

So what is it that might make German companies and teams so different?

1. Outcome obsession

Germany is an engineering nation, with a reputation for making and building everything from high-end industrial hardware to luxury cars. Where its engineers differ from many though is in their focus. Engineers are usually brought up to focus on technology, a discipline or kit. Thus their preoccupation is on technique and technical details. Electrical engineers will look at the electronics in a system, software engineers at how to develop the most elegant code.

German engineers think and act like Product Managers – they are outcome and value oriented. BMW engineers are not working on engines or even vehicles, they are building the best premium cars in the world.

2. Passion

Passion is not a word many would put high on the list when thinking of Germany. It is more often associated with its southern neighbours like Italy and Spain.

Many people confuse the word passion with excitement though. Passion doesn’t have to be loud and emotive.

What distinguishes the German car industry from others is that its executives are cars nuts through and through. Whereas American car companies are lead by career execs, in Germany Porsche, VW and BMW are run by leaders with a deep passion and obsession with designing and making high performing cars. It’s a passion that allows them to play the long game, not falling for fads and fashions, but instinctively knowing the right thing to do.

German leaders are enthusiasts first and foremost, with a passion and vision for what they are doing far bigger than a simple business case.

3. Continuity

The World Cup final was not just a victory for the German football team, it was a victory for the German sports brand Adidas – both teams were wearing Adidas kit and the famous three stripes ran down every player’s sleeves.

What distinguishes Adidas from its competitors is it has been in the football game a long time. If you go back thirty years you can see winning teams wearing the same three stripes. Sure some of the styling has changed, but there is a continuity and consistency in how Adidas has developed as a brand.

If you take an iconic German car and remove the logo you can still tell what it is – the VW Golf, The BMW, the Porsche 911 all show a clear continuity of development and design.

This mindset had been extended to the concept of platforms. Germany has pioneered the development of reliable platforms onto which a variety of things can be developed and delivered. The Porsche Cayenne has become one of the world’s most sought after premium SUVs. It is a unique and outstanding piece of engineering, but it is built on the same reliable underlying platform as the mass market VV Touareg.

German companies don’t keep reinventing what they do, they keep improving and innovating what they are good at.

4. Relentlessness

Soon after the German team’s victory 'The Onion', a satirical online magazine, ran a headline “Germany humiliated after winning the World Cup 6.38 seconds behind schedule.” Like all good jokes it is an amplified version of the truth. The reputation of German products has been built on an unrelenting commitment to efficiency, effectiveness and reliability.

This doesn’t just show up in how their products work but how German organisations operate. The German team scored a single brilliant goal having played 90 minutes of normal time, and with only three minutes to go of extra time. Was this luck? If you look at the stats the answer appears to be no. German teams have an uncanny habit of scoring right at the end. Why? Quite simply because they do not give up.

German product design isn’t perfect. A few years ago the once bullet proof Mercedes started to have quality issues. The response to this was not a crisis or a knee jerk reaction to the market, Mercedes engineers simply went to work and fixed it, learning from their mistakes, and adapting quickly. Germans teams do the same. Their heads don’t go down, they keep looking at what they need to do.

They relentlessly work with their end goal in mind.

Ich bin ein Berliner

In an era of massive change and disruption, Germany points to what it takes to maintain high value brands and products in a fiercely competitive global market.

If you don’t want to have to fight on commoditization or price it might be time to start to look at how to think and operate more like a German.

As an English football fan I would be very happy to keep winning just before the final whistle rather that going out in the usual blaze of excitement, high drama and good reasons.

If you don’t want to have to fight on commoditization or price, it might be time to start to look at how to think and operate more like a German