Most business processes are people dependent. That is, people are required to make the process work. However, some business processes are person-dependent, and that is limiting. To know if a process is person-dependent you just have to ask yourself what happens if that person, specifically, is not available temporarily, or permanently? Will the process fail? Clearly, some people are better at certain functions than others, but if the process fails without a specific individual available, you have built a flawed process because it is person-dependent.
Most of us have worked in companies where this is an issue within our purview. However, when it extends to the most senior levels of the company, it can be limiting if not damaging. General Motors has for MANY years missed major trends in the auto industry. Where they were once a trend setter, they are now a slow follower. The reason is not lack of talent, but rather a business process that requires too much time to approve a project. GM’s solution to this problem was Bob Lutz. As far as one person goes, he did a GREAT job at moving new product ideas through GM faster than previously. However, Mr. Lutz wanted to retire at the end of this year. He can’t. Why? Because the processes in place at GM are still “Lutz dependent.” If GM does not fix this before Mr. Lutz must retire, they will not be any more viable than they have been. And this is not unique to GM.
Steve Jobs was on leave from Apple for quite a while this year due to illness. Many experts opined that a protracted absence by Mr. Jobs could be an “issue” for the company. If this is true, then as many people believe, Mr. Jobs is a critical, part of the Apple process and without him their performance may suffer greatly. This makes the process person-dependent. As I said earlier, great people make a difference, but if you go from great to a lost cause because of the loss of one person, that is not good business management.
When Steve Jobs originally handed the company off to John Sculley, Apple suffered. And no other CEO was able to get them back on track. Similar things can be seen with Howard Schultz at Starbucks, Arthur Blank at Home Depot, Michael Dell at Dell, etc. Walt Disney, Sam Walton and other legendary CEOs built business processes that were not dependent on them personally, so I will not buy the notion that some CEOs are just so good they are irreplaceable.
Great people are always valuable, but building robust processes that are not person-dependent allows for a sustainable business.