Q&A #3 : What I Learned from the Swiss

Query from AN : You worked with the Swiss in Switzerland a lot, why ?

Answer : That’s a tricky query. On the one hand it started by serendipity but once I’d worked with the Swiss I found that my mindset was in some strange way complementary but different to theirs. Fortunately it was productive and beneficial to all involved.

My first impression of Switzerland was made in front of the Passport Check at Zurich Airport. On the floor there is a line that you must wait behind before your passport is checked. In front of that line, also on the floor is the word DISCRETION. This is to inform you that politeness and privacy are expected.
So there are some of the main Swiss values, literally spelt out before you even get your passport checked!

After working for a very short while it becomes very clear that other values are expected, such as integrity, honesty, consistency and clarity – no pressure then …

The Swiss seemed at first to be terribly stiff and formal and to an extent they are. They like a clear framework of understanding to be shared by all involved in a project before it gets started. They also will have a paperwork (or modern equivalent) system worked out too – so there is always somewhere to file things and you can always find things. All that came as rather a shock to a slightly untidy, scatterbrained Englishman.

I was a little non-plussed when my first Client said,
“Make me an Offer, Please”
Eventually I realised that instead of him telling me what he wanted from the project it was up to me to tell him what my proposed contribution would be to the project. Of course this makes great sense. It quickly showed the Client how well we understood the project and what they wished the outcomes to be. Very different from the UK where Managements mostly worked ‘blind’ and hoped for the best – which often never materialised because Contractor and Contractee had different notions of what was required. Of course the ‘contribution’ you offer must bring benefits that other’s won’t or can’t provide. Everything must be justifiable, tangible and deliverable.

So, having got common goals clearly stated the next stage is how to deliver the outcomes. The Swiss are, as the Scots would say, ‘careful’ with their spending and very, very risk conscious. 
Fortunately our way of working fitted in with this – all our work has been based on the iterative Demming* cycle of progressive implementations of the project and its products. Each stage using a plan, do, check, act cycle which then repeats until the project is complete. The Swiss were always very focused on the ‘check’ part of the cycle to verify that the project was on track and the products met their requirements. There were no “Big Bang” projects where chaos was followed by a miraculous result in the nick of time – that is not the Swiss Way.

We used to have conversations at 3 levels:

  1. Business and Management Objectives, Ownership (responsibilities) and Funding, Project Management. This also included discussion of any needs for a change of project scope and implications of that.
  2. Creative discussions about how best to go about the day to day work on the project, what technology to use, who was best suited to do what, how to handle problems when they became evident. Day to day adaption of the plan to hold to delivery commitments.
  3. Informal “off the grid” discussions on ‘what ifs’, whacky alternatives, how to handle awkward situations not of our making.

This was very different to working in the UK or Germany. Although outwardly it it looked more formal the secret of success was good communication within the project and with the Management. Much of our work was for Banks which had investments that had taken an unfortunate or unanticipated path. Rather than just shutting a loss making company down (common UK Banking Practice) the Swiss Bank would set up a project to support or replace the Company management and also support a team to review the marketing, technical and manufacturing issues and to improve both what the Company did and how it was done. Having desparately tried to help many UK Companies in similar circumstances, basically in a continuous uphill battle against short sighted Banks and Managements, this was very refreshing and rewarding. In every case we managed to turn the Companies around and most were then sold as profitable ‘going concerns’ rather than loss making ‘dead ducks’.

The best Award I was ever given was by the engineers at Studer Ag the Recording Equipment manufacturer. After a torrid few years struggling from bare survival to business stability they presented me with a framed certificate for me and my team helping them through. As with all our projects we used the existing employees, reallocated them to roles where they could contribute and nurtured them, their designs and teams – protecting them from Management hassle and Marketing interference until tangible results could be demonstrated. Once they had had an early success they ‘bought in’ and became self motivated.

The Best Ever Award …

Hats off to my Swiss colleagues who over 30 years provided opportunities, support, encouragement and friendship – including

Robert Lombardini, Karl PferdeKaemper, Peter Locati (AGIE Ag),
Erwin Steinman (CAPCON), Hans Haessig (Studer Ag), Prof Gideon Levy, Matt Frei (Soudronic Ag) and a host of others …

We also had close links with ETH in Zurich for over 30 years and worked on an EU project with them once. Thanks to Prof Niklaus Wirth (Modula-2), Prof Jurg Gutkneckt (Zonnon), Felix Friedrich (Compilers), Florian Negele (IDEs and https://ecs.openbrace.org/), Paul Reed (Small is Beautiful) – for their thoughts and generosity.

*W Edwards Demming, Out of the Crisis, Pub: MIT Press USA and
The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, Third Edition by W. Edwards Deming; MIT Press, Jan 2019

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