How Culture Affects Your Speed of Execution

Originally published on LinkedIn on January 31, 2016


On a recent visit to a large automotive company, one of the VPs expressed his alarm and concern about the delays being experienced in their project timelines. Hans*, the VP, has been with this German company for over 20 years. He is an engineer and has been responsible for a numerous amount of projects.

Speed across five continents

Our language is very exact," Hans told me. “And when we were communicating with our people in Germany everyone understood what needed to be done. Sure, there were always a few clarifications here and there, but for the most part we were able to execute and get things done very quickly and the outcomes were quite predictable.

Since our company is now in five continents, our projects need to be coordinated between us and teams from several countries. Predictability is gone and our timelines have become extremely complicated.”

Hans and I have been working on bringing to the surface the obstacles and barriers to execution that are associated with multicultural environments.

A few of the issues:

  1. They had expected that by adopting English as the common language for communication, everyone would understand things the same way it had been once upon a time in Germany. However, they discovered that misunderstandings happened more often because of cultural differences. While the German and American team members relied on the meanings of words, typical of a low context culture, the Chinese, Mexican and Japanese needed further explanations about details- which added time to the meetings, lots of waiting and repetition.
  2. How the project team made decisions was also a topic we discussed: the respect for titles and hierarchy became an issue for discussion many times when team members from Japan for example, could not relate to the fact that a very young engineer from Germany was driving the project and many times calling the shots. In their mind the hierarchy and the age did not match. Unfortunately, the Japanese members did not provide their input and chose to remain quiet for the sake of harmony, while what was needed was diligence and speediness.
  3. One additional issue popped up about roles and responsibilities. As it turned out a project manager in the US does not play the same role as someone with the same job title in China. And a purchasing manager in Germany does not correspond one to one with the same title in Mexico. In both cases, they each followed a different process which impacted the timeline and how decisions were made.

The soft factor with a hard impact

Execution requires excellent alignment and coordination of activities. When the people executing cannot communicate or understand each other, there will be delays, workarounds and corrections. Culture can no longer be a hidden or “soft” factor and as Hans experienced, you may want to visit your project teams and find out how your execution is really going.

*Hans’s name has been protected.