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Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

The Berlin Wall Model

"We've got things really well organized," said the head of the least active department in a company intent on engaging all of its people in the continual improvement of everything done in the organization. "Besides, my people don't really have any new or fresh ideas." The department head, a highly regarded and affable company vice president, was sincere. In his department, management believed everything was so well-defined that the lower-level employees simply had to execute. Original thinking was not necessary or expected. Not only had the "right things" to do been defined, so had the way to "do those right things right."

 This approach should be called the Berlin Wall model, based on a specific incident that took place on that elongated structure early in the 1980s, less than a decade before the wall and the government that had ordered it built both disappeared.

 It seems that a resident of West Berlin (relatives later reported that the gentleman involved had some mental challenges) attempted to escape from West Berlin into East Berlin. He had eschewed the option of simply walking past Checkpoint Charlie, introducing himself to the East German police and officials, and explaining his intentions. Instead, he decided to scale the Berlin Wall, in imitation of the thousands of East Berliners who had attempted escapes over or under the Wall since its construction in the early 1960s.

 What few people realize is that the Berlin "Wall" was actually two parallel walls (both constructed by the East Germans) approximately 40-50 feet part. Going over the wall was not a matter of climbing up one side of a wall, yelling "look out below" and dropping onto the soil of a different regime. A person wishing to make the journey from one Germany to another had to scale one wall, make it across a well-lit "dead space" and then climb up and over a second wall--all within easy view and weapons' range of the military forces of both sides.

 The man's effort to escape capitalism and join the workers' paradise ended when, as he was climbing up the second wall, the one closer to East Berlin, he was shot to death--by the East German guards.

 What happened? The explanation given was simple. The East Berlin guards had strict and clear orders: If they saw anyone climbing on the wall, they were to shoot him or her dead.

 The problem was that, in this case, the man had defied expectations by trying to go from West to East--a possibility that had apparently never occurred to the high-level communists, who wrote the rules for the East German soldiers. The procedures had been carefully written with no allowances for deviations from the anticipated behavior. Thinking by lower-level operatives, actually having "new or fresh ideas," was not only considered unnecessary, it was actively discouraged. Such independent thinking would, after all, have been counter to the underlying philosophical underpinnings of communism, a system in which power is defined as being resident in the hierarchy, with individuals having little, if any, worth other then their ability to follow orders precisely.

 When a manager at any level in an organization today--and the higher the level, the more damning the sin--believes that he or she has saved his or her people from the need to think by doing it all for them in advance, that manager should summon up the image of the pitiable man bleeding to death on the Berlin Wall. After more than 15 years of "managing" activity on the wall, the East German hierarchy was quite sure that the system was very well-defined. All their people had to do was execute.


About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999). Pat Townsend has recently re-entered the corporate world and is now dealing with leadership.com issues as a practitioner as well as an observer, writer and speaker. He is now chief quality officer for UICI, a diverse financial services corporation headquartered in the Dallas area. E-mail the authors at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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