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Denise Robitaille


The Art of Interviewing

Learn to effectively pose a question to elicit pertinent information.

Published: Tuesday, August 9, 2005 - 22:00

I’ve long been a proponent of involving as many individuals as possible in corrective action, both during the root cause analysis phase and during the development of the action plan. Middle managers, supervisors, machine operators, customer service representatives, shippers, software test engineers, buyers, etc., should all be invited at one time or another to participate in this process. Each possesses distinctive talents, a unique perspective on situations and special knowledge relating to his or her area of expertise. As such, they collectively represent an often-untapped trove of ideas and information.One of the drawbacks to including these individuals in the corrective action process is that many of them lack adequate interviewing skills. They don’t know how to effectively pose a question to elicit pertinent information. Some, not fully comprehending the purpose of fact-finding and root cause analysis, are worried about getting their co-workers in trouble by “fingering” the individual who’s to blame for the problem. Others are simply intimidated by the whole process. Another downside is that individuals who aren’t skilled at interviewing often have inefficient practices that waste company time.

Many quality professionals have had extensive training as internal auditors. Most auditing courses include a module on interviewing. Depending on how rigorous the course is, this particular module can consume several hours. The Quality Audit Handbook (ASQ, 1999) and the CQA Primer (Quality Council of Indiana, 1992) contain several pages devoted to interviewing techniques. Since this is one of the basic activities in auditing, we quality professionals get a lot of practice. Unfortunately, it rarely occurs to us that others haven’t had the benefit of the same training and practical experience, when we send them out to ask questions that we now take for granted.

If you want to increase the pool of individuals who can meaningfully contribute to your corrective action process, you need to ensure that they have the proper tools. That includes mentoring them in developing their own interviewing skills. This should consist of coaching on content and context: what you ask and how you ask it.

What follows is a short list of tips to guide problem solvers through their first experiences in interviewing.

  • Read the relevant documents that describe the requirements of the activity. Make note of what appear to be important milestones—decision points like inspections, tests, authorizations and transfers between departments or functions.
  • Make an easy flowchart if it helps visualize the sequences of the process. But keep it simple: rectangles, arrows, diamonds, etc.
  • Determine what records provide evidence of fulfillment.
  • Prepare for the interview by developing the questions you need to ask ahead of time.

Once the interview has started:

  • Inform the process owner of the reason for your investigation.
  • Let them know approximately how long you expect to take and stick to it.
  • Tell them why you have selected them for your questions: “We need your help because you have been running this job the longest.”
  • If you’re planning to ask the same questions to another individual on a different shift, let them know.
  • Tell them if you’d like to observe them working.
  • Ask permission to touch things.
  • Ask them how they know what to do.
  • If they have reference, work instructions, drawings, SOP’s or other specifications, ask them to show you.
  • Compare their documents against the ones assembled as part of the preparation. This allows them to easily determine if document control/distribution is part of the problem.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Ask open-ended questions, not the kind that will get only yes or no responses.
  • Use the documents to help you frame your question.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat or rephrase your question.
  • Give the process owners time to answer. They may need time to think.
  • Ask what happens next.
  • Suggest a scenario and ask, “What would happen if…”
  • Write down the answer so you don’t forget.
  • Ask why, why, why…
  • Ask how.
  • Listen to the answers.
  • Remember objectivity (just the facts).
  • Remember that you aren’t an enforcement officer. Avoid confrontation.
  • Finally, reassure your new problem solvers that they have what it takes.

Interviewing, as part of an investigation or root cause analysis, carries the same basic rules of common courtesy and accompanying code of conduct as it does in auditing. I sum it all up with an (embarrassingly maternal) admonition: Be nice.

This may seem a bit simplistic, but these are the very same tips that auditors get with their training, which is appropriate since the purpose in both cases is the same: to get objective evidence to determine the conformance of an activity to defined requirements. And the goal in both cases is to improve the way you do business.


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.