How to be German: Craftsmanship and Quality

Each month our resident psychologist Sven Rudloff brings us insights on what it means to be German - with interesting stories about typical German things and the German psyche.

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Today I want to talk about German craftsmanship and quality. Germany has this long-standing reputation of being a country of excellent engineers and technicians, building reliable machinery - including cars. Most of the names associated with the birth of the automotive industry are German - Daimler, Diesel, Otto, Benz, Porsche. And after a century, German cars are still seen as of high quality in international comparison. 

 German cars are often cited as examples of great German engineering. Image:  M93 / Wikimedia

German cars are often cited as examples of great German engineering. Image: M93 / Wikimedia

But one could also name Johannes Gutenberg as an example, the inventor of movable type - not of the printing press, though, this had been around some time before Gutenberg. Or remember Wernher von Braun, equally famous and infamous for his involvement in the development of rockets and missiles, first for the Nazis and then later for the Americans, up until the moon landing. Or take German technology companies like Siemens or Bosch whose engineering services and products are asked for worldwide.

The notion “Made in Germany” on products has for quite some time been a seal of quality. But has this always been the case? No, quite to the contrary. It’s probably not that quality is built into the German psyche, but more so the eagerness to organise stuff. Therefore, two things that actually helped to make German engineering such a success story are standards, and standardised education.

The birth place of the industrial revolution was Britain, but as industrialisation spread across Europe and the US in the second half of the 19th century, other countries including Germany tried to imitate British products. The British were annoyed by the initial low-quality copies of their inventions, and in 1887 English Parliament passed the Merchandise Marks Act. From then onwards, all products sold in England had to bear the country of their origin, to make imports highly visible. This is were the “Made in Germany” seal comes from.

But the British initiative against the cheap German copies backfired eventually. The Germans themselves had become annoyed by the low quality of their products. The German engineer Franz Reuleaux served as a judge at several International Exhibitions of the time. After the World Fair in Philadelphia in 1876, Reuleux famously scolded the products of his home country as cheap and bad. In the following years, several initiatives led to a remarkable improvement of German production processes and quality, mainly driven by the setting of common standards. For example, Reuleux himself oversaw the introduction of a unified patent law across the German Reich. Organisations were formed to ensure the quality of technical equipment, like the predecessor of the German TÜV - the Technical Supervision Association. Most Germans mainly know the TÜV as the organisation that checks your car for roadworthiness. However, the TÜV’s objective is to oversee the safety of all sorts of technical equipment, from home appliances to industrial machinery. It was originally founded in the late 19th century to ensure the safety of the growing number of boilers and steam engines in Germany, following some devastating incidents. Over time, the TÜV’s scope expanded with technical development.

 Many Germans who wish to learn a craft complete an apprenticeship. Image:  Arbeitgeberverband Gesamtmetall / Flickr

Many Germans who wish to learn a craft complete an apprenticeship. Image: Arbeitgeberverband Gesamtmetall / Flickr

But only because you set a few new standards and introduce more regulation doesn’t automatically result in widespread improved quality - you have to instil the new spirit into the people actually doing the work. Here is were the famous dual education system of Germany comes into play. Many countries very much focus their schools on equipping children for university only. If you are not qualified or interested in university, you may learn a craft instead - but this usually means that you mainly learn the actual handiwork of a craft but forego academic education altogether. In Germany, only one third of children leaving school go directly to university while two thirds do an apprenticeship. This means that they join a certified program in which they work part of the week for a company that pays them and teaches them the relevant skills. The rest of the time they spend in school for further education, covering more academic skills around their chosen profession. This is what is meant by “dual education system” - you have both practical and academic parts. It’s a very practical, applied approach. At the same time, German apprenticeships are standardised across the country and highly recognised.

And this brings us back to the German quality initiative of the late 19th century: By making safety and process improvement part of the respective apprenticeship curricula, Germany could educate within only a few years a new generation of quality-minded and qualified technicians. While some university-educated engineers may have set the course, it came down to the technicians, builders and administrative staff in factories to ensure that proper processes really became reality. 

And so it happened that by the time the English Parliament issued the Merchandise Marks Act, Germany was already overtaking Britain in terms of product quality, and the “Made in Germany” mark that was supposed to condemn products imported from Germany became a seal of quality worldwide, to this very day.

 DIN's headquarters in Berlin. Image:  Standardizer / Wikimedia

DIN's headquarters in Berlin. Image: Standardizer / Wikimedia

However, there are two facts that I also need to mention. 

First, while the foundation for Germany’s industrial quality had been laid by the early 20th century, both World Wars and their aftermath helped to grow it further. In 1917, the predecessor of today’s German Institute for Standardisation - abbreviated DIN - was founded, as central governing body for standards. You may now this abbreviation from the German paper sizes like DIN A4. While the introduction of a central governing body for standards was a logical step in the further professionalisation of German industry, the true reason was more specific - it was to focus all of Germany’s industry to support the war effort. Similar organisational and regulatory measures were made before and during the Second World War. So when Germany’s industry was being rebuilt in the 1950s, this could be done based on a long history of established standards and experience across industry sectors.

Finally, the German engineering focus hasn’t always been positive. There are many examples where Germans “over-engineered” something - they made it too good or too complicated for actual use. Appliances may be clever and long-lasting, but when they eventually break, you often need a specialist or even the original manufacturer’s help to get them repaired - if this is even possible.

So, sometimes we overdo it with our focus on quality and organisation. So it may not come as a surprise that after four years in the UK, I often wanted to tell the British colleagues “Couldn’t you be a little bit more organised?” - while at the same time I wanted to tell my German colleagues “Couldn’t you just relax a little bit?”. How about we try to keep the balance? Then we would be all better off I think, and “Made in Germany” or “Made elsewhere” wouldn’t matter so much anymore.