I admit: I went shopping again. And while I was already prepared that in Brazil shopping usually takes longer than expected, I was not prepared for what happened when I went to buy a printer and had to go through an amazingly complicated procedure in which I had to talk to 6 different people before I could leave the store with my brand new but real cheap 150-Real printer. And since a part of me is still a quality manager, let me describe in short terms (you see the corresponding diagram above) the steps that were necessary.

Getting what you want

When I arrived I headed straight to the computer section where I found the printer I wanted to buy. Then I began looking for a sales representative to explain to me, how I would be able to buy this thing (I knew from an earlier visit, that you can’t simply take an item and go to the cashier). When I found her she led me to a separate cashier where I had to give my personal information, CPF and my credit card to pay. So technically I had the printer in my shopping cart and already paid for it after only some minutes. Was I free to go? This would not be Brazil. I was handed a piece of paper to show at the cash register and asked to take it from there. So I walked through the giant Hypermercado, looked for the cashier with the shortest line, stood in line until it was my term.

Paying and the help desk

The cashier was not very interested neither in the printer, nor in the piece of paper. I asked her what to do and she called one of these amazing guys (or girls) on roller-blades (or roller-skates) who are circling the long line of cash registers of the Hypermercados in order to help with problems. The rollerskater-guy took my piece of paper and rolled off to some more pressing matter. I had to wait for him to return and lead me to the “Atendimiento” which is the customer help-desk. Funnily the help desk was almost exactly where the printers are located in this giant supermarket, so the rollerskater-guy led me back inside to where I started and handed the piece of paper over to a friendly women sitting at a desk (the 4th person I needed to talk to in order to proceed with my purchase). She was supposed to give me my “nota fiscal” – an official receipt and a proof that taxes have been paid as well as my guarantee certificate. Unfortunately the notal-fiscal-system was not working at this day, so I was told. Instead the women wrote down some numbers on a sheet of paper and told us to proceed.

In and out and back in again

I pushed the card a couple of meters to another woman. Since I had entered the supermarket again, she was to control my cart before leaving. Again some numbers were written on a big sheet of paper and the cart inspected, but everything seemed to be ok. Now there was only one last person, I was told, and he was situated at the very end of the supermarket.

Final check

Upon arriving at the end of the supermarket I found a friendly guy who would unpack the printer, test if everything works and then repack it again. After this test I would be free to leave. But since the the friendly testing guy was busy testing a giant television and because it was obvious that this would take a while, I became impatient and asked if I could just go. To my surprise I was told that I was not obligated to have the printer tested and that I could come back if it didn’t work. Happily (and a lot later than expected) I was able to move back to the parking lot and to head home.

A quality manager’s thought about it all

In order to buy this (pretty cheap) printer I had to interact with 6 different people and wait in line 5 times – even though I was incredibly lucky that there were almost none lines at the time I was shopping. I could not help but realize, how inefficient this buying procedure was designed.

I have already pointed out that I spent the last years of my life working as a quality manager and part of my job was to make sure that processes in my company were simple and fast and therefore cheap. And this orientation on cost is more than a work habit of mine, it is a German mentality. For the last 15 years we have been told that everything has to be as efficient as possible in Germany and that manual work has to be reduced because otherwise products would be expensive and if products were expensive, jobs would be lost to countries where production is cheaper. This is still an ongoing believe in German politics. And as a result of this dogma the average wages in Germany have been decreasing in the last 15 years, trying hard to keep production costs low. (Interestingly the very high incomes were increased at the same time, making Germany one of the countries where inequality of wealth has increased the most in the last 15 years).

Costs vs. Employment

But the idea of cutting costs is not limited to wages, over the last two decades almost all social services in Germany had been cut back, reduced or lowered: the public health system, the public retirement plan, unemployment benefits etc. And according to the thinking of low costs for companies a giant number of low-income jobs were created in German, many of which are actively and sometimes heavily subsidized by German government (which of course means taxpayers money). So while a general minimum wage is still disputed in German politics millions of Germans are working in jobs that are paying less than they need to life and these people are receiving support from the government. Amazon, just one example, had a lot of negative press before Christmas, because of inhumane working conditions and minimal payment. And just today it was announced that the Ministry of Labor in Germany would pay all its’ employees not less than what by many is considered to be the minimal wage. So even for the Government it was normal to pay wages with which people were forced to apply for governmental help. How insane is that? But Germany is said to be the economic poster-boy of Europe, where business is thriving and the economy growing (even if this growing wealth is very unevenly distributed).

Maybe efficiency is not the only goal

But back to my original thought: one of the general assumptions in Germany is, that Germany is only well off because the country and many companies were and are able to reduce costs by paying their workers less or by increasing automation and efficiency. And this is why going shopping for a printer in Brazil was challenging not only to my time but also to the discourse of efficiency which I have been so used to for the last years, that I did not even reflect upon it for a while.

Of course processes can be organized by differing goals and not only with the aim of minimizing costs. Gaining reasonable profits for all people involved could be another goal, for example. Now I admit that I don’t know why shopping turned out to be so complicated here in Brazil, I suppose it is a mixture if things: One being a general mistrust and therefore an attempt to make more people look over and control a purchase especially in a field where probably very expensive products may be sold.

Cutting costs vs. keeping people employed

But coming from Germany and having experienced the disaster which the policy of wage reduction means for many people, I am not only amused by the lack of efficiency in Brazil, I am at the same time amazed by the willingness to set a different goal. It is one of the things I find confusing and by this enriching in Brazil. Wherever I go there seem to be a lot of people working, way more than my German mind thinks necessary. I am aware that one of the reasons for this is the giant inequality of incomes in Brazil, which means that a person working for minimal salary is not even able to afford the middle-class pleasures of going to the movies or having a drink in the bar etc. But I begin to ask myself, if this Brazilian way is not in fact the better way to go.

We are living in a world where manual labor is becoming less and less necessary, automation is increasing and (as in Germany) many people seem to accept the fact that there will never be enough work for all people to be employed full time. Full employment was a reality in the last century, but it is not anymore. So what to do? The German way seems to be to increase the pressure on people to work for little money, less money than they need to avoid poverty. But this will only increase the competition between people seeking work and thereby decrease the wages. It will not solve the problem, that there is not enough work for everyone.

We are living in a world where a decent work (with a fair salary) is already not available for many people. And I deeply believe that people need to work, want to work in order to feel productive and happy. So I am deeply amazed by the fact, that social fairness could be achieved not by efficiency of processes and the reduction of costs, but by trying to keep as many people as possible employed for a fair, at least for a minimal wage, which should be enough to guarantee people a decent life. (There is of course a minimum wage in Brazil). Dignity for all people involved is an interesting goal in this sense. But probably I am just another one of these Europeans who are romanticizing the hard life of many people in Latin America while being frustrated about his own country. Seems I can’t break out of a tradition, any way I turn.

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