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Consultancy across borders

When working abroad, the bottom-up commandment isn’t always the gospel truth

At ARV Group, we help companies in the process industry to optimize their operations and supply. Together, by means of structured change and improvements, we arrive at more efficient processes, continuous improvement and therefore better results. In doing that we work together closely with management, but we also involve employees from all levels of the organization. Because we believe that broadly endorsed changes lead to the best results. When carrying out commissions abroad, however, that often turns out to work quite differently…

Here in the Netherlands we consider it completely normal. Are you on the verge of major steps towards change and improvement? Then you don’t limit your planning to the executive management alone, but you also get the employees involved. After all, they’re the ones with hands-on knowhow and experience and they know how the daily business is run. They also happen to be the people who will actually be putting the changes into practice. Their input is valuable, and often provides a host of opportunities. Frankness and commitment are the keywords. The right mix of top-down and bottom-up.


My experiences abroad, however, have taught me that this bottom-up gospel doesn’t always apply outside the Netherlands. In countries like India or Russia, hierarchy is in the very blood of systems and people. There, companies and organizations are organized top-down. And so they’ll give you a strange look when you suggest getting the shop floor involved in a program of change or improvement. And not just the management: in fact, the people on the shop floor themselves. Employees there, after all, aren’t used to being asked “what’s your opinion?” or “so, what do you think about it?”. Let alone being invited to a workshop where they’re asked about their own practical experience and their own ideas for improvement.

Absolute authority

Take the optimization of a plant in Bangalore, India, for example. During a company training session I organized there, it quickly became clear to me that as consultant and trainer, you have absolute authority. No matter what claims you make, no one will question your expertise. Even during a training session on applied statistics in Sigma 6 for a group of customers. During which I discovered partway through that half the group consisted of actual mathematicians…


Or what about the frankness for which we Dutch people are so legendary abroad? I found out that that can’t hold a candle to the way local plant employees at an American high-tech firm in Israel talked to each other. Conversations there, during workshops dealing with a capacity issue, resembled out-and-out fights. But when I investigated a little further, that turned out to be all show. The people, in fact, had great respect for each other; it was only that their manners were different. In this macho culture, no one simply “takes your word for it”. People only listen to you when you are self-assured, come up for your own opinions, radiate clarity and refuse to give in an inch.

System and long-term

In countries like China and in Eastern Europe too, one does well to study the culture a bit beforehand. And the honest truth is: you learn more and more as you go along. During the many years that I worked in Russia, for example, “friendship” proved to be the keyword for effective cooperation. One first develops a personal relationship, before going on to do business. Because within a traditionally rigid social system, the only way you can survive is to have good contacts. The Russians even have their own word for it: blat. It’s the basis for success.

Respect and empathy

As a consultant, therefore, you have to adjust your working methods and your approach as soon as you wind up abroad. My experience is that openness and the realization that things don’t always go the way you’re used to having them go are very important attitudes. You have to be able to accept that other “truths” exist alongside your own version of “the truth”. Are you able to display your willingness to understand and appreciate someone else’s culture? Then they will forgive you even your mistakes. At the same time, though, you mustn’t overdo it. As soon as you start playing the part of the Chinese national, the Ukrainian or the German, you become a caricature and lose your credibility.
It takes some getting used to, in other words, those first few times you work abroad. But it’s also extremely fascinating and inspiring. And even though our bottom-up commandment may not turn out to be the gospel truth outside the Netherlands, there are always plenty of other opportunities to arrive at continuously improving results.

Edgar Scheffrahn

“Truly show your willingness to understand and appreciate other cultures.”

Publish date 16 June 2017