PMI visits the Soviet Union
PMI VISITS THE SOVIET UNION
Forty delgates and companions visited the USSR under the auspices of PMI and Peo-pie-to-People. This is a summary report of that trip as seen from four different perspectives. It was interesting to find the many different perceptions by the members of the delegation and yet realize the unanimous feeling of friendship and concern which was generated on the part of visitors and visited alike. A detailed report of the trip is being prepared by Brian Fletcher.
The Professional's Perspective
Brian Fletcher, Delegate Leader
“People to People,” born in the mid-fifties as a viable alternative to the Cold War, has been responsible for countless thousands of American professional delegations who have exchanged experiences and ideas with colleagues in similar vocations (counterparts) in areas such as China, the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries. Under the auspices of People to People, the Project Management Institute assembled a select team of thirty representatives and ten companions to visit four Soviet Union cities in June of 1990.
A June 12th departure from the gateway city of New York and return from Helsinki on June 25th allowed seven working days and four weekend days to keep twelve counterpart appointments, attend five cultural performances, visit tourist attractions and hold countless impromptu meetings with colleagues and Soviet citizens. We also managed to fit in one special invitational meeting between two of the delegates and the chief of Moscow's Public Works department—MOSINZHSTROI, Andrei Stroyev, who is also chairman of a real estate joint venture (PERESTROIKA).
Delegates donned caps and smocks as they toured the BIRULOV meat processing plant where we were treated to a sampling of their products.
The delegates’ expectation of what kind of project management expertise would be encountered ranged from learned and in-depth to minimal practices. In the event of meeting counterparts with a sound understanding of project management techniques, delegates were well prepared with audio visual aids and hand-out materials. We even carried our own equipment in anticipation of equitable exchanges, in teams or as individuals. What the delegates experienced was very much in contrast to even minimal expectations. Differing realities, together with exposure at our meetings with those who manage engineering or who are in control of factories, institutes of higher learning or construction projects, provided excellent windows for a snapshot of the working and social lives of the citizens.
Our tour guide from Moscow, Jhenia Grigoeyeva, interprets the conversation between Brian Fletcher and our host in Tbilisi, Mr. Yuriy Ivanovich.
The words “Institute” and “Project” have a significantly different meaning to the Soviets we met. This was a major contributing factor to the different findings than those anticipated. The main goal of the mission was to learn not only about project management practices but to become conversant with all aspects of Soviet life-business, recreational, political and cultural. What we saw was a country of paradoxes and anomalies, in humor and in fact. (See “The Editor's Perspective.)
We had heard of systematic repression of religion, but saw endless restored, ornate, expensive church architecture and furnishings, with evidence of solid congregational support. Delegates were exposed to a wealth of technical expertise while witnessing a system unable to take advantage of this vast resource. There was:
- Free education for every citizen entering an environment which stifled innovation by lack of productive uses for the millions of ideas;
- An incomparable depth of knowledge on how to grow in abundance, but coupled with an archaic and faltering distribution system which succeeds in supplying only a subsistence quantity and quality of food for the rank and file;
- A system which suppressed capital wealth for the individual while nurturing a surreptitious system of privileges for the few in power;
- Medically skilled and sufficiently trained people in a health system in which bureaucratic practices have a higher order of precedence;
- Profit-motivated endeavors (outlawed until recently) versus a thriving underground market and a trade and barter system;
- A fiscal policy to provide stability for currency, but where citizens opt for almost any other country's currency or tradeable commodity;
- An alleged somber citizenry contradicted by hospitable, friendly people from all walks of life.
In spite of there being skilled building tradesmen in abundance, there are chronic overcrowded housing conditions such that space was rationed to 43 square feet per person for the nonprivileged majority. For the most part, technology seemed antiquated. However, small pockets of the most advanced technology were surprisingly discovered.
THE TECHNICAL MEETINGS
We had negotiated more technical visits than typical for this kind of exchange delegation. After only a few meetings, we began to appreciate the fast pace we had set and just how much there was to see and learn in such a short time.
After the Moscow meetings, we began holding team strategy sessions to judge, from experiences, how we might become more productive at the remaining meetings. These sessions proved to be very effective. There were many positive suggestions. To emphasize one: be better listeners.
The major thing learned was that the Soviets had no formalized project management practices as we know them. This immediately exposed another paradox. There are significant national accomplishments, such as the achievements in outer space, yet no visible project management techniques which we believe are essential to success.
In MOSCOW, delegates visited a section of the rapid transit system under construction plus the engineering offices of METROSTROY, and talked to all levels of staff at an institute researching better ways to build road constructing machinery (VNIISTROYDORMA). Delegates went to a meat processing plant (BIRULOV), a mechanical engineering production association for agriculture research (VISHOM), and an automobile factory (LIKHACHEV). As a group and as individuals we were treated without suspicion. Groups of delegates used underground transit without restriction. People were most helpful when we were obviously in need of direction. Riding the subway extensively the ever-genial Bill Baum explored far and wide. We were never anxious, nor did we feel threatened walking the streets in the evening. Two exploring delegates, Alan and Ailene Stretton from Australia, had even taken the time to master the fundamentals of the Russian language.
Alan Stretton (center) and Miles Patrick (to Alan's left) engage in intense discussion with our hosts in Tbilisi, Georgia.
As we mingled in the crowded streets, many of the people did fit the stereotyped, unsmiling populace of which we had heard. However, in direct contrast, all those we had the good fortune to meet at closer quarters were genial and keen to demonstrate their friendliness.
Deep in the heart of the Caucasus mountains was our second port of call: TBILISI, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. Here, very hospitable hosts held discussions with us at the Institute of Mining Engineering, took us on an excursion to a Tbilisi underground transit construction site (GRUZSELMOSH), and provided for one-on-one exchanges with experts at the computing center of Georgia State Planning (SYSTEMOTECH-NIC). Had there been sufficient flexibility within the bureaucratic administration, we may have stayed another day. Southern belle Jan Porter from Atlanta showed opportunistic initiative in recognizing and gaining the confidence of those middle managers responsible for computers. Jan was shown with pride the double-doored security room where the few computers were housed. The hosts’ eagerness for software information and their excited appreciation for the help given is indescribable.
A resolve for a free Georgia was strong in this southern city in the Soviet Union, where the climate is semi-tropical and the area is a melting pot for dozens of cultures and religions. Many of the delegates had impromptu invitations into the homes of our Sunday hosts, who were to be our business hosts on the following day. The Georgians are different. They are fiercely proud of being different and showed their emotions more quickly than their northern colleagues. It was their intention to host an unforgettable evening of wining, dining and dancing. That they achieved their purpose was self-evident. Lasting friendships were forged. Manana Chipashvilli and daughter Sofia have already visited ten of their delegation friends in North America and are likely to be the first of many of the friends we made to visit the United States and Canada.
The smile on the face of Anatoliy Barabashov, Deputy Director for External Economic Relations for TURBOATOM in Kharkov, conveys the friendly manner of our conversations with our hosts.
Moscow is in Russia and Tbilisi is in Georgia. The Soviet Union is comprised of fifteen republics; during our ten-day visit we would visit three.
Flying again by Aeroflot, our third city stop, KHARKOV, is in the Ukraine. Ukrainians too are friendly. Candor is matched with a sense of humor that puts the visitor immediately at ease. We saw the manufacture of tractor engines at the SERP\MOLOT plant tour. We were impressed by their level of technical expertise, but not with the lack of state-of-the-art design of their product nor their capabilities in distribution and spare parts provisioning. Nevertheless, we had a lively question and answer period through the interpreter to the technical director, Vladimir Koljadi, and his team of close to twenty who were assembled for our benefit.
The history of the Research and Production Association, TURBOATOM plant, was fascinating. They were justifiably proud of the quality built into their large turbine products. Our experts in power generation, those delegates designated as the team for the day with visits and presentations (an approach which proved successful), Helmut Loeffler, Noel Hutson, and Miles Patrick, were suitably impressed. We judged that the Soviets’ experience in competing against foreign suppliers for installations outside the Soviet Union was likely a reason for the self-evident craftsmanship, timeliness of delivery and the quality turbine units. Ken Oriole, who was leader for the team of the day, fielded many questions on the Soviets’ favorite topic: Joint Ventures.
IPMASH had a striking auditorium in which we got to hear and make presentations. This was at the Kharkov Institute of the USSR Academy of Scientists. The North American delegation, capably represented by Michael Petko, Ed Grimes and Ed House, had hard acts to follow when Soviet experts addressed the group on highly complex technical topics. Kharkov has been described as one of the brightest stars in the Soviet Union's industrial constellation. It is a three-century-old city where skilled artisans gathered over the formative years to make it today one of the leading Soviet industrial centers. We were told that it is now distinguished for high quality, efficiency and reliability. We observed that to be the case. This was also a city of friendly people where again a few delegates had the opportunity to enjoy the hospitality of Ukrainian homes.
One event is worthy of mention because it serves to show both contrast and similarity. Les Prudhomme, Elvin Isgrig and I visited our host, Nokolay not at his apartment, but at his friend's home. The allowable square feet of an apartment for a single person, we were told, was quite an impractical size in which to entertain three guests and an interpreter.
However, close friend Boris was a family man, entitling him to larger living space. Even then, we were tightly packed into a small living room with Boris's wife Tania and daughter Julia. As one looked about the room, it could not have been imagined as being in North America. With closed eyes to hear only the discussions, however, one might have easily been sharing the evening with a typical North American family. We commiserated on inept government practices, exchanged understandings with empathy when workday problems were related, and agreed to the same misunderstandings about the younger generation's taste in music.
Julia was characteristic of any high spirited Western teenager: confident of her ability, recognizing the obstacles in her path and setting down her goals with firm conviction. When she chose, she could be “front and center” in any aspect of the conversation.
While we began by talking about differences, we constantly returned to that which we had in common. As we talked it was realized that one of the differences between people within Soviet life paralleled those differences we might see in North America. People who were associated with government quota-driven practices were differently motivated than those most attuned to market economy forces. We began looking at how we differed. We concluded by observing how, as people, we were similar. It is possible that we were looking for differences where there were none and found them where we did not expect to find them.
LENINGRAD was our fourth city, back in the largest of the fifteen republics, Russia. We listened to the Director General of the ELECTROSILA Production Association describe his organization. The Deputy Director-Economics of this impressive major electrical generator plant spoke about improving quality control, while our team for the day—Bill Arnold, John Tuman and Ken Oriole—were prepared to talk about North American power generation practices.
This last plant tour capped our Soviet visitation program, but cultural learning continued with excursions to the Winter Palace and St. Isaac's Cathedral. “Unique architecture” and “superb craftsmanship” were words to describe these world renowned buildings, “overpowering” would be the singular choice to describe the artistry in the Hermitage museum. Ballet and a gala evening dinner show gave our visit to this city and to this country an extra special touch. We happened to be in Leningrad on one of the longest days of the year: called White Nights. While the sun never really set on the night of June 24, regrettably the sun did set on our brief tour.
This delegation had a visit packed with learning, not so much as expected about new approaches to project managing, but about a vigorous people rightfully confident of their talents and anxious to harness this talent for a richer life. They were eager for news of the lifestyles of people from abroad; spirited people eager to meet every new challenge as individuals or as a nation. Their keenness to augment their talent with Western accomplishments consistently brought out what was also their favorite expressions: Joint Venture. In our two weeks we had just begun to appreciate how much the political and economic differences impacted on each of our respective perceptions and expectations.
The group feeling was a mixture of both disappointment and wanting to help. It is disappointing that a nation of people so rich in culture, creativity and intelligence have only taken advantage of a small fraction of their potential. Delegates readily recognized many problems where Western experience and expertise could make a significant difference and wanted to help.
As an integral part of an initiative to help there could be opportunity. As this great nation of fifteen states emerges into the twenty-first century and into world market economies, there will be many opportunities for both Soviet people and friends. While today the few opportunities are hard to recognize and are seen to be coupled with risk, nevertheless education in Western management styles and expertise to help with an overhaul of a distribution system established to satisfy government quotas, rather than consumer demand, were two of the more easily seen opportunisy openings.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet President, stated on a visit to the United States in June 1990, ’Those who cooperate with us now will see many opportunities for further cooperation, but those who stand on the sidelines will remain standing there—and, I think that will be fair.” This viewpoint was evident throughout our business meetings.
PMI came back from Europe with letters of intent to cooperate with a number of Eastern Bloc management groups, albeit these agreements were negotiated in Vienna when twenty of the Soviet visit delegates attended the INTERNET Conference. Having negotiated with representatives from Moscow, Latvia, East Berlin (at that time) and Czechoslovakia, it is now the intention to organize, in combination with INTERNET members, a future trip to other Eastern Bloc countries. If you are interested, call me.
Brian Fletcher served as delegate leader of the PMI/People-to-People visit to the Soviet Union. He has served PMI in many capacities including president and chairman. He was a founding member of the Southern Ontario Chapter of PMI and has served as its president as well as in many other ways. Brian is engineering manager of Stelco Steel's Lake Erie Works. He and his wife, Ann, who assisted Brian in many ways in leading the delegation to the USSR, live in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.