Swiss Efficiency

Moleson-sur-Gruyeres

“The Swiss can be divided into two general categories: those who make small, exquisite, expensive objects and those who handle the money of those who buy small, exquisite, expensive objects.” – Malcolm Gladwell

I spent last weekend in two parts of Switzerland: German-speaking Bern and French-speaking Montreux. Switzerland seems reluctant to designate a federal capital; regardless, most federal institutions are located in Bern, including the parliament, the federal council, and the central bank. Montreux is more of a resort town right on Lac Léman, better known as Lake Geneva.

It’s too easy to dwell on the beauty of Swiss cities and countrysides, or on how well the Swiss exhibit culture, or on their small quaint traditions. Instead I want to explore a different trope in this post, and share some experiences with the splendidness of seeing Swiss efficiency in action.

By efficiency, I don’t just mean the ability of the Swiss to work hard (although this is the country to overwhelmingly vote down a referendum to replace the four-week mandatory vacation policy with the more typical six-week policy). Instead I’m referring more generally to just how well everything works. When you’re dealing with services in Switzerland, everything that could be simplified is simplified. Servicepeople and public authorities have put in a tremendous amount of thought to make things work well. Here are some examples.

Trains. We have to start with this one, obviously. I needed to board five trains to get to the town I was visiting from Germany. A booking agent figured out all of the connections from the first leg of my trip. Of the four connections I had to make, three had gaps that were under five minutes. As an Amtrak rider, I sweat when I book long trips that leave 15 minutes for making a connection. When I dared to ask the agent whether a 3-minute schedule gap is enough, she looked back and responded plainly: “Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”

And I did. Trains departed on the minute they were supposed to depart, and would arrive usually a minute or two earlier than scheduled. To me it’s all still amazing: I had to make 5-train trips, twice, sometimes with very tight connections. All of them connected smoothly, and it was all done with a single quick booking.

Trains, again. Here’s a more subtle way to demonstrate the thoughtfulness of service: When I was on the train that crossed German-speaking Switzerland to French-speaking Switzerland, the priority of the train announcements changed. When I got on, “Näster halt…” was first, “Le prochain arrêt est…” was second; when we crossed, these two flipped. How very cool that someone considered to do this.

Slipping safety. On the top of the Alps near Lake Geneva, I found steps that led to a viewing platform. These steps were made of steel grates, meant to reduce slippage and snow accumulation. On every third step of the way up you’ll find a vertical barrier, covering half the step, and alternating on the left and right side. At first I was annoyed because they forced me to zigzag when I climbed up. When I asked my friend what they’re for, he explained that if someone slips then they might fall by just three steps and not the whole way down. When they built the stairs, the designer thought about how someone might fall, and built this to prevent the most dangerous kind.

Parking lots. When we drove into an underground parking lot, there were electronic displayed that showed the number of free spots available and arrows pointing us to the closest one. We didn’t have to drive through every level hoping to find an opening. Instead we were directed to one immediately. This system is made possible because there’s a sensor above every single spot.

Queues. Other than for making small purchases, you find very few of these. Whenever you’re waiting to speak to a serviceperson, say for booking a train ticket, you pick up a numbered ticket from a machine and wait for your number to appear over a service counter. That leaves you free to sit down or wander a bit. This isn’t done just in train stations; I found this system in the tourism office and in the box office of a concerthouse. It took me a while to get used to how frequently that this system is deployed; always look around to see if you should have grabbed a ticket!

These are small examples, and apologies if these are in fact quite common around the world. I find these subtle little touches everywhere, and they’re are wonderful when you experience them. It’s like the whole country is run as a four- or five-star hotel.

Why and how are things like this? “Why” questions are always harder to answer than “what” questions, but I’m happy to present a few hypotheses.

Here’s the crudest: Everything in Switzerland is so expensive that it would be impossible to expect poor terms of service. If you’re paying the equivalent of 5 dollars for an espresso, or 30 dollars for lunch, or 50 dollars cable car ride, then excellent service should be part of the package. (This is mostly wrong, of course, because things aren’t necessarily as expensive for the locals, who are still the majority of customers.)

It would only be slightly better to offer: “Oh, that’s just how the Swiss are. It’s in their nature to be so careful and attentive.” Maybe that’s true, but as a first attempt we should look for social reasons to explain cultural tendencies.

I’d like to think that everything works so well because everyone expects things to work well. It’s a lot easier to shirk if you expect your co-workers at the next line to shirk. Likewise, it’s a lot harder to shirk if you expect to be the only broken part of the system, the person who messes up the fine work of others.

That doesn’t explain how the system got to be the way it is. A deeper explanation might be this: Maybe people feel especially respected and empowered here. A waiter in America typically sees it as temporary work; I’ve heard that waiters, and general servicepeople, expect longer careers here. Most of them are not graduates of elite colleges waiting for something else to turn up. Rather they may have gone to trade school and expect to serve a different role in society. They’re not looking to jump ship, and society finds ways to honor them for what they do, including through the welfare system by making sure that no one has too hard of a time to make ends meet.

And especially for the Swiss, perhaps the compulsory two-year military service gives people a good sense of what they can expect from their fellow-citizens. Here’s a quote from Luigi Zingales, reflecting on his rather different experiences in Italy: “If you start from the presumption that everybody around you is there to take advantage of you, you’re going to behave in a completely different way than if you are more optimistic about people around you.”

German services are certainly efficient, but the Swiss services are a league above. Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin, was so enamored of the German post that he wrote one of his few non-satirical essays, “Postal Service,” to celebrate its efficiency. I think that he would have been yet more impressed had he lived in Switzerland.

Here are some pictures from this trip.

Swiss Alps Moleson

From the top of Le Moléson. Mont Blanc is on the left, Lake Geneva is on the right.

Bern Parliament

The Swiss Federal Palace, which houses the National Assembly and the Federal Council. Every Tuesday and Saturday the plaza acts as a farmers’ market.

Bern Skyline

The Bern skyline gets to use the Alps as a backdrop.

Lake Geneva

Serenity on Lake Geneva.

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