Last month, I talked about the amount of risk that businesses take on through various initiatives. Today, I’d like to address a topic that people usually put into the risk category but which I think goes to the subject of business performance. Often, employers refer to the risks to the business if a certain individual were to leave the company. They’ll openly wonder about what would happen if a certain employee “got hit by a bus”. Well, in all of my years in the work force, I’ve been fortunate enough to never actually know of an employee who got hit by the proverbial bus. Of course, we all know that the real risk people are concerned about is what would happen if this person just “up and quit” one day with little notice. Again, this is something that rarely happens. Most employees are professional enough to give at least two weeks notice. There may be times when they do not want to do so, but they recognize that it is in their long term best interest.
The underlying concern, of course, is that one individual is the only one who knows how to perform certain critical business functions and therefore the organization is held hostage to him or her. These functions are usually not well documented nor understood by others. Unlike employees getting run over by buses, this is a phenomenon that I’ve seen time and again in the business world. And time and again, companies adapt. Usually, there is not so much that is a mystery that others don’t understand and the customary two week notice is sufficient for companies to find a way to fill any gaps. Moreover, it’s often the case that some of those critical, mysterious functions can be performed differently to reach the same end result. Sometimes, they don’t need to be performed at all!
I believe that the real issue with critical functions being understood by only one person is less about that person leaving the organization and more about day to day business performance. Often the person described above is a bottleneck to the rest of the organization. Their lack of action on a particular item can cause the entire company to grind to a halt. Other employees can become unproductive as they enter a “wait state”. More importantly, customers are kept waiting resulting in lost revenue in the short term and lost customers in the long term as they find another company who will provide more timely service. To add insult to injury, it is sometimes the case that the employee who is so critical in one area is an underperformer in others. Overall, the business would benefit if it were no longer held hostage by him or her.
While I have never seen an employee get hit by the proverbial bus, I have seen an employee who is a gating factor in almost every company with which I have ever come in contact. If you look around your organization, chances are that you’ll find an employee who is a bottleneck in a critical area and thereby limiting the performance of the entire organization.
One key to improving company performance is to search out and eliminate underperforming resources. It is an old saying, but “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. The same holds true in any organization.
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