The Myth Of German Efficiency

A few costs of the Teutonic ethic: meddling neighbors, sodden pedestrians and wooden tomatoes

Time and efficiency: the diptych of German virtue. It's a cliche. Just as the mere word manana brands Latins as slow and unreliable, jokes ask how many Poles or Irish it takes to change a light bulb. Globe-trotting sophisticates know that dinner at eight means nine in Madrid and half past in London. Here in Germany you can be the last guest if you show up at five after. Social promptness is only one of a host of traits that have given Germans a reputation for efficiency unrivaled since Alexander the Great made short work of the world before his 33rd birthday.

Is it deserved? Even as the Teutonic industrial machine rolls along like a supercharged BMW, there are signs that German efficiency is not all it's cracked up to be. Yes, West Germany is Europe's economic dynamo, boasting the highest per capita productivity in the world. Yes, German planes and trains leave (more or less) on time, and the streets are clean. "The Germans are not perfect," says John Meyer, an American business consultant in Dusseldorf "But when it comes to efficiency, they come closer than anyone else."

But let us remember: efficiency, taken to an extreme, can become inefficiency. Anyone living in Germany quickly learns the drawbacks of excessive perfectionism. Take the helpful telephone operators at the West German Bundespost. They will routinely disconnect your call if it exceeds the time deemed necessary to efficiently conclude your business. Frustrating? You bet, but less so than the hassle of getting a phone in the first place. That can take six weeks (three months if "street work" is required). Nor is the technician who installs your line the man who plugs your phone into the wall. That five-second operation requires yet another appointment--and another long wait. Don't do it yourself; you will be fined.

Rules and regulations encumber German society. "The price of efficiency is bureaucracy," says Stephanie Wahl, a sociologist in Bonn. "We Germans like to be told how to do everything." That may be an understatement. In Germany, there are laws against squeezing the tomatoes at the grocery store, laws telling you when to clip your hedge, laws on how to hang your window curtains. When you move in Germany, you must register with the police. You should also register your TV. Roving vans cruise German streets, equipped with antennas that pick up waves from whatever electronic appliances you might have. They know how many radios, TVs or telephones you have--and tax you accordingly. But watch out. A foreigner with a new baby recently found herself in an endless wrangle with the German government, which was convinced that the signals picked up from her baby monitor were transmissions from an unregistered (and therefore illegal) cordless telephone.

Few advanced countries make the mundane tasks of life so...inefficient. A simple money transfer takes two weeks. Trains and planes are canceled without notice on holidays. Grocery stores close during the lunch hour, on weekends and before most people get off work. And don't dare mow the lawn on Sundays, a statutory day of rest. Violations might elicit a note from the neighbors, pushed under the gate, reminding you of the regulation . . . and the likely interest of the police.

Germans argue, not without merit, that such restrictions make you think before you do. The theory is that if you make a careful list and budget your time, you are automatically more efficient. So be resourceful. Slip in for doorknobs or diapers on the way to interviews with heads of state.

Traffic jams: Being so efficient, Germans have oodles of free time. Come weekends, they all climb into their cars and drive on the same autobahns to the same spots to relax in the same cafes. That produces the world's biggest traffic jams on the world's most efficient highways. You also see this in L.A. But in Germany, the breakdowns have a different cause: a love of institutional behavior. The German Bundespost regulates everything from selection of television programs to what size envelope you must use to mail your mother's birthday card. There aren't a lot of choices--but then, at bottom the Germans don't really like choices.

How do you calculate the costs of over-regimentation? Manfred Bauer, an executive of Prudential Bache in Munich, suggests one answer. "No one disputes the Germans' flair for organization and management," he says. "But they are less skilled as innovators." German-made ovens are wonders of industrial design--yet hardly a manufacturer in the country has childproofed them by moving the controls from the front of the stove to the top. There is a more serious side to the question, summed up in the word Gehorsamkeit. It means dutiful obedience, with the faintest allusion to lemminglike behavior.

Today, as Germany sweeps toward unity, people fear that things are happening too fast, too efficiently. But there is little resistance, no public outcry. It's hard not to respect a people who can stand calmly in the rain, waiting for the light to cross a street on which no traffic passes. But sometimes you feel like a friend who recently took a vacation in Italy. "God, it was wonderful," she said. "Everybody was driving the wrong way down one-way streets." German efficiency is a wonderful thing. But let's not try so hard to be perfect.