Six Sigma practitioners in multinational companies need to know the differences in perspectives between European business leaders and their American counterparts. With some insight, they can improve their understanding and avoid potential conflicts.

By Thomas Bertels

While the United States and Europe share a common cultural heritage, there also are vital differences in the way Americans and Europeans look at the world. One can observe this not only in world politics, but also in the business world. There are differences in perspectives between European Six Sigma professionals and their American counterparts.

Most companies that deploy Six Sigma require Black Belts to be fully dedicated to the program for at least two years. Usually the Black Belts become members of a staff function that reports directly to the chief executive officer or chief operating officer of the company. Black Belts are required to complete a certain number of projects a year, working with particular business units to deliver substantial business benefits. The ability of those Black Belts to be effective is critically dependent on how supportive each business unit is of the Six Sigma program.

Black Belts who work in an international business have to deal with cultural differences between the various nationalities at work. Consider this example: A Master Black Belt works in the German subsidiary of an American company, and reports to a quality leader in the United States. His role is to oversee the deployment of Six Sigma in a plant or a sales organization with several hundred people. The Master Black Belt is effective in the local organization because he is a German national; and he understands the need to build relationships with the senior experts in engineering, sales, operations or underwriting. It is essential he learns about the business as well as the products, and earns credibility as somebody who understands what the business is all about. Such an approach takes time, but it ultimately works in a traditional German business.

However, chances are, his U.S. quality leader does not know what it takes to succeed in a typical German business. So in reporting to him, the Master Black Belt must emphasize other aspects of the job – getting business results, obtaining buy-in and showing steady progress toward stated stretch goals.

Given that many American companies have European subsidiaries and are pursuing Six Sigma programs, a look at the dissimilar expectations could improve understanding and help avoid potential conflicts. The following characterizations are stereotypes, intended to illustrate the issue. No stereotype is true in all situations. And the differences cited here are not limited to Europe and the United States. It goes without saying that there are significant differences in culture and values among Europeans (the French and the British, for example). However, the points outlined below provide a checklist for those who work for an American multinational or for a European business with a presence in the United States.

Early Wins Are Critical and Time Is of the Essence

In U.S. business culture, quick wins are considered vital. Most business leaders assume that the organization has a limited attention span: “This program better deliver results quickly, or we might have to quickly adopt a different approach.” Programs that do not deliver results during the next 12 months have a harder time obtaining funding. On the other end of the spectrum, European business leaders generally have less difficulty committing to multi-year efforts. What is true for entire programs also applies to specific projects. Whereas most European business leaders would accept project durations of more than 12 months, most of their American colleagues generally do not encourage projects that last longer than six months.

Informal Ties and Interpersonal Skills Are Important

Americans rarely rely on formal relationships and roles to get things done. Most American business leaders do not rely on their formal authority alone, but try to extend the relationship into the personal space. This creates in general a more social atmosphere, and thus interpersonal skills are a lot more important than in Europe, where the professional role often commands sufficient respect to get things done.

Planning Is Less Important Than Doing

The typical American business leader has a predilection for action. His European counterpart has a predilection for planning. Both methods lead to success in their respective worlds. In most European companies, action with a disregard for planning would be considered reckless. And in most American companies, a slower-to-act approach with greater emphasis on planning and preparing could result in project termination before the planning phase is even complete.

A ring of truth in any of these stereotypes to any degree means it may be time to apply Six Sigma. Simply conforming to the stereotypes is ignoring the issue. Recognizing different cultural tendencies and moving forward from there is essential. Just how real these differences are in each individual case is what calls for a little Six Sigma. Those involved in multinational, and therefore multicultural, companies should do a little data collecting on what the difference are by starting an in-company dialogue on the issues. That would allow everyone involved to compare the different positions and perspectives and to understand each other better. That, in turn, will improve the effectiveness in working with each other – a critical competency for Six Sigma professionals no matter what projects they are involved with.

About the Author

Thomas Bertels is a partner of Valeocon Management Consulting, and serves as the global firm’s regional director for the Americas. He has worked with clients such as TRW, Siemens, Vanguard and Johnson & Johnson, and also served as the editor of and main contributor to a Six Sigma leadership handbook. Mr. Bertels started his career at ABB (Asea Brown Boveri), one of the early adopters of Six Sigma. Fluent in German and English, he is based in New York, N.Y., USA, and can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author