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OPINION: Why Germans’ famed efficiency makes the country less efficient

Germans are famous for their love of efficiency - and impatience that comes with it. But this desire for getting things done as quickly as possible can backfire, whether at the supermarket or in national politics, writes Brian Melican.

Flower cart
Do Germans stop and smell the roses? Not if they're quickly pushing them through to the check-out, as pictured with this customer at a gardening store in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

A story about a new wave of “check-outs for chatting” caught my eye recently. In a country whose no-nonsense, “Move it or lose it, lady!” approach to supermarket till-staffing can reduce the uninitiated to tears, the idea of introducing a slow lane with a cashier who won’t sigh aggressively or bark at you for trying to strike up conversation is somewhere between quietly subversive and positively revolutionary – and got me thinking.

Why is it that German supermarket check-outs are so hectic in the first place?

READ ALSO: German supermarkets fight loneliness with slower check outs for chatting

If you talk to people here about it – other Germans, long-term foreign residents, and keen observers on shorter visits – you’ll hear a few theories.

One is that Germans tend to shop daily on the way home from work, and so place a higher premium on brisk service than countries where a weekly shop is more common; and it is indeed a well-researched fact that German supermarket shopping patterns are higher-frequency than in many comparable countries.

Bavarian supermarket

A sign at a now-famous supermarket in Bavaria advertises a special counter saying “Here you can have a chat”. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Another theory is that, in many parts of the country (such as Bavaria), supermarket opening hours are so short that there is no other way for everyone to get their shopping done than to keep things ticking along at a good old clip.

The most simple (and immediately plausible) explanation, of course, is that supermarkets like to keep both staffing and queuing to a minimum: short-staffing means lower costs, while shorter queues make for fewer abandoned trolleys.

German love of efficiency

Those in the know say that most store chains do indeed set average numbers of articles per minute which their cashiers are required to scan – and that this number is higher at certain discounters notorious for their hard-nosed attitude.

Beyond businesses’ penny-pinching, fast-lane tills are a demonstration of the broader German love of efficiency: after all, customers wouldn’t put up with being given the bum’s rush if there weren’t a cultural premium placed on smooth and speedy operations.

Then again, as many observers not yet blind to the oddness of Germany’s daily ‘Supermarket Sweep’ immediately notice, the race to get purchases over the till at the highest possible rate is wholly counter-productive: once scanned, the items pile up faster than even the best-organised couple can stow away, leaving an embarrassing, sweat-inducing lull – and then, while people in the queue roll their eyes and huff, a race to pay (usually in cash, natch’).

In a way, it’s similar to Germany’s famed autobahns, on which there is theoretically no speed limit and on which some drivers do indeed race ahead – into traffic jams often caused by excessive velocity.

Yes, it is a classic case of more haste, less speed. We think we’re doing something faster, but actually our impatience is proving counterproductive.

German impatience

This is, in my view, the crux of the issue: Germans are a hasty bunch. Indeed, research shows that we have less patience than comparable European populations – especially in retail situations. Yes, impatience is one of our defining national characteristics – and, as I pointed out during last summer’s rail meltdown, it is one of our enduring national tragedies that we are at once impatient and badly organised.

As well as at the tills and on the roads, you can observe German impatience in any queue (which we try to jump) and generally any other situation in which we are expected to wait.

Think back to early 2021, for instance, when the three-month UK-EU vaccine gap caused something approaching a national breakdown here, and the Health Minister was pressured into buying extra doses outside of the European framework.

This infuriated our neighbours and deprived developing countries of much-needed jabs – which, predictably, ended up arriving after the scheduled ones, leaving us with a glut of vaccines which, that very autumn, had to be destroyed.

A health worker prepares a syringe with the Comirnaty Covid-19 vaccine by Biontech-Pfizer. Photo: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Now, you can see the same phenomenon with heating legislation: frustrated by the slow pace of change, Minister for Energy and the Economy Robert Habeck intended to force property owners to switch their heating systems to low-carbon alternatives within the next few years.

The fact that the supply of said alternatives is nowhere near sufficient – and that there are too few heating engineers to fit them – got lost in the haste…

The positive side of impatience

This example does, however, reveal one strongly positive side of our national impatience: if well- directed, it can create a sense of urgency about tackling thorny issues. Habeck is wrong to force the switch on an arbitrary timescale – but he is right to try and get things moving.

In most advanced economies, buildings are responsible for anything up to 40 percent of carbon emissions and, while major industrials have actually been cutting their CO2 output for decades now, the built environment has hardly seen any real improvements.

Ideally, a sensible compromise will be reached which sets out an ambitious direction of travel – and gets companies to start expanding capacity accordingly, upping output and increasing the number of systems which can be replaced later down the line. Less haste now, more speed later.

The same is true of our defence policy, which – after several directionless decades – is now being remodelled with impressive single-mindedness by a visibly impatient Boris Pistorius.

As for the check-outs for chatting, I’m not sure they’ll catch on. However counterproductive speed at the till may be, I just don’t see a large number of us being happy to sacrifice the illusion of rapidity so that a lonely old biddy can have a chinwag. Not that we are the heartless automatons that makes us sound like: Germany is actually a very chatty country.

It’s just that there’s a time and a place for it: at the weekly farmer’s markets, for instance, or at the bus stop. The latter is the ideal place to get Germans talking, by the way: just start with “About bloody time the bus got here, eh?” So langsam könnte der Bus ja kommen, wie ich finde…

READ ALSO: 7 places where you can actually make small talk with Germans

Member comments

  1. In a country riddled with burocracy, mindless rules and poor digitalization, I can’t see how the phrase “Germans are famous for their love of efficiency” makes any sense. It’s been quite the opposite in my experience.

  2. I was an exchange student in Heidelberg in the 1970s — before big business took over just about everything on the Hauptstrasse. It was much friendlier then…except for the government bureaucracy which was neither friendly nor efficient. But having just become German citizen, I must tell you that has also changed…for the better.

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ANALYSIS: How sick is the French health system?

Amid warnings that parts of the French health system are on the verge of collapse and a new government plan for health reform, John Lichfield takes a look at exactly what - if anything - is wrong with healthcare in France.

ANALYSIS: How sick is the French health system?

Within 10 kilometres of my home in deepest, rural Normandy I have access to six doctors, a dozen nurses and a medical centre.

Two of the small towns within 30 kilometres have full-service hospitals. A little further away in Caen, there is one of the biggest and best hospitals in France.

Maybe I’m lucky. In the next département to the south, Orne, there are large areas where there are no doctors  at all – “medical deserts” as the French call them. One in ten French people has no GP or médecin traitant. Over 600,000 French people with chronic illnesses have no doctor.

Twenty years ago, the World Health Organisation declared the French health system to be the best in the world. In more recent surveys, France often comes in the top ten and sometimes in the top five.

You can hear John talking healthcare with the team at The Local in the latest episode of the Talking France podcast – download HERE or listen on the link below

And yet the French public hospital system is, we are told, close to collapse, exhausted by Covid and years of under-investment. Some GPs are threatening to go on strike for a doubling of their official fee of €25 for a consultation (less, as they point out, than you pay for a hair-cut or a manicure).

President Emmanuel Macron and his health minister, François Braun, agree that there is a problem. Macron is a doctor’s son. Braun is a doctor. They have diagnosed a number of problems; partly a shortage of money at the point where it is needed, partly chronic disorganisation and poor administration.

French health minister: We must reform the health system to reflect the France of today

President Macron, in his New Year message to health workers last month, promised that all the 600,000 sick people without a doctor would be offered one before the end of the year. He promised that there would be 10,000 “medical assistants” instead of 4,000 by the end of 2024.

He also promised an end to what he called the “hyper-rigidity” in the system of financing, administering and staffing of hospitals. (In other words, he gave no promise of extra money but the government has already committed to spending an additional €19 billion on hospitals over ten years.)

This is not just a French problem, as anyone who follows the news in Britain will know. All health systems in the world are struggling to cope with ageing populations, expensive advances in medical treatment and restraints on public spending.

The French health service is, overall, less impressive than it was 23 years ago when the WHO declared it to be the world’s finest. The same is probably true of all of the others.

The explanation for the French decline is partly universal and partly French; partly about money and partly about French politics, French attitudes and even French geography.

More than prescriptions: 10 things you can do at a French pharmacy

In purely financial terms, France  spends a huge amount of money on  health. Overall, the country invests 12.4 percent of its annual GDP on health care (mostly channelled through the state). This compares to 12.8 percent in Germany, 11.9 percent in the UK and 17.8 percent in the United States (much of it private).

In both GDP terms and cash terms, the amount has been rising despite the fact that investment in public hospitals was severely restrained for 15 years by Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. In terms of health outcomes France, according to the OECD, remains the second best-performing country in the world, just behind Japan.

And yet there is something odd and unbalanced about how France spends money on health – an imbalance which has become more problematic as cash become scarcer.

Although France spends almost as much overall as Germany, it has fewer doctors and nurses and pays them far less. It has fewer hospital beds than Germany but many more hospitals.

The share of French health spending which goes on administration is 7 percent, compared to 5.5 percent in Germany.

The proliferation of hospitals is one explanation for this high admin burden. France has 4.42 hospitals for every 100,000 people, compared to 3.62 in Germany and 2.86 in the UK.

It should be remembered, however, that the number of hospitals is partly imposed by the fact that France is a comparatively large, empty country. Medium-size towns have their own hospital because it is a long drive by ambulance to a big city. Closing down rural hospitals would – rightly – provoke an outcry.

Even more striking – and less justified – is the French addiction to drugs and pharmacies. My neighbouring small towns in Normandy have two or three pharmacies each; almost every large street in Paris has at least one. It is scarcely surprising that medicines, and their distribution, account for 18 percent of all health spending in France, compared to 15 percent in Germany.

READ ALSO Why do the French love medication so much?

Another ‘French’ factor which has put enormous pressure on the French health service in the last two decades has been the 35-hour working week. Its effects on industry and office working have sometimes been benign; in the staffing of hospitals, it has been a calamity.

Macron in his New Year health address identified the application of the 35-hour week as one of the areas of “hyper-rigidity” in the administration of hospitals that he wanted to change this year. He has been accused of wanting to abolish the 35-hour week in the health service. That is not quite what he said.

As the more reasonable medical commentators’ admit, Macron (the doctor’s son) has done more for the French health service than his predecessors. Apart from the €19bn for hospitals, he has spent an extra €12bn on pushing up doctors’ and nurses’ incomes (which remain lower than they should be).

He also removed the absurd cap on the number of doctors which French medical schools were allowed to produce each year.

Macron is asking for trouble if he thinks he can resolve the present crisis without spending more money. But it is wrong to suggest, as some do, that France has the worst of all possible health services. 

The debate on the  French health service suffers from the same crippling ailment which afflicts other areas of political life in France: a catastrophism which ignores what is going well and fails to identify what needs to be changed.