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Process Interviewing Problems & Solutions

Process interviewing is the fastest way to glean pertinent information about a system. See the nine ways people will try to derail interviews and a solution for each. There are a few things that can go wrong before the interview, during meetings and in gaining sign-off on the completed model.

Here are the top nine interviewing problems.

  1. Stalling – can’t get an appointment
  • Process interviewing of stubborn people.Everyone is busy, but some people can milk “I’m busy” for days. Test their availability by using the (1—3—All) technique. Start by suggesting a specific time, if that does not work then suggest three alternate times. If they decline the alternate times, tell them that you will open your schedule (which includes before work, at lunch, and after work). If they hesitate, you can be pretty certain that it is not really about how busy they are. They have probably “gotten the wrong message” or no message at all. They are worried about what this project will mean to their department, team or even their job.
  • If they have gotten the wrong message, ask them if you can have ten minutes to show them what you are doing. Go to their desk with your laptop and show them a process. You may want to bring up a demonstration file, and show them how it works. Help them to understand that you will be doing the same thing for their process. The vast majority of the time they will become enamored with the idea that they can participate in the change process and set an interview time. If this doesn’t work, you are going to have to pull rank, because somebody didn’t get the message that everyone was supposed to cooperate. Go to the senior manager (or the designated appointee) and have the manager get the “message” out to the right people. An interview under duress is not ideal, but it is better than no information.
  1. Defensiveness

People often become defensive during process interviewing.When an interviewee takes offense or exception to questions asked about their process, it’s because they believe it’s not in their best interest. For example, if an interviewee thinks that the process improvement effort is about downsizing and it isn’t, then you will need to make a case for why the project is vital to them, the customer and the company.

In some cases, they may have good reason to be defensive. The process may show “they” are the bottleneck. Follow the procedure of isolating one ‘entity” type at a time and gather what information you can. You may need “back into” some of the information by talking to the groups that feed them entities and to the groups they supply. This technique is not a preferred method of collecting process information but may be your only source.

  1. Too many cooks in the kitchen
  • Process interviewing is difficult when too many people are in the room.Some groups will want the whole team to participate in the interview. They will say “we can get a better representation of what happens if we have everyone’s input” or “let’s get it over all at once by having everyone (or a subgroup) participate.” There are no conditions where it is advisable to have more than one person at a time in the interview. From experience, we have found that it will take longer and your product will not be any better if you interview multiple people at the same time. What usually happens is that people that typically are confident will start to look to others for what happens. The group will debate, add activities, subtract activities and never come to any conclusion. A top consulting firm in the US discussed a process for an hour. At the end of the hour, they could only agree on one step. I have observed many similar situations. It doesn’t work well to interview many people at the same time.
  • When placed in a situation where more than one person is in the room for an interview, do the kickoff portion of the meeting and then explain that you want to interview one at a time and you will provide information for the last discussion as a starting point for the next. Then promptly toss the extra people out of the room. Don’t go on until you have the room cleared.
  1. Micromanager

Process interviewing is difficult with a micro manager in the room.Sometime the supervisor or boss will want to sit in on the interview to “see how it’s done.” The problem this creates is that the process expert won’t talk freely about the process in front of the supervisor. The supervisor doesn’t want people outside their department to know that processes are not running as efficiently as possible – it would make them look bad. During the interview, a questioning glance, frown or glare can kill the flow of information. For these reasons, do not allow a supervisor to sit in on the interview. Use the same technique as mentioned in “Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen” to remove extra people from the room. If they want to see how “it’s done,” then have them sit in on an interview for an area that they are not in control of, and only if they agree to be a silent observer.


  1. Artificial tsunami – overload of information
  • Sometimes the interviewee is so excited that someone is listening that they want to tell everything they know about the system. Every exception and circumstance is given in rapid-fire detail. Even slowing the interviewee down won’t completely solve this problem. If they don’t prioritize their knowledge, it is like a tsunami of information, indiscriminately washing over the interviewer. Not only is this difficult to comprehend, but it is also almost impossible to capture.
  • At this juncture, it is a good time to compliment them on their knowledge and let them know that they are giving you all the right information, but you are having trouble digesting the detail. Explain that will need to capture the process differently so that it will help the team look for opportunities.
  • After you have “constructed an information seawall” to stop the flood, retake control of the interview. Ask them to take a common “entity” and walk through the process for that specific entity. Once you have a framework for the process, then you can add additional products. Create the structure of the model that puts the most common process flow along the top of the model with less common streams being placed lower in the model.

Information overload can occur during process interviewing

  1. The history teacher

Everybody has stories and it is tempting to use the past to teach principles. Sometimes a lesson in history from the interviewee can cost you thirty minutes or more. Since you should keep an interview to less than an hour, you can’t afford to lose large chunks of time. You have to cut the history lesson short gently. You might say, “I wonder if we could save that story for a later time? I promised I would only keep you for an hour and I have the project manager pushing me hard to finish this critical interview.” Do whatever works for you, but don’t allow the interviewee to ramble. You can bring it back by talking about a specific entity…where does it go next, how long does it take to do that step.

  1. Everything is unique

Process interviewing problems everything is uniqueMost people believe what they do is unique. From my experience, there are a lot of standard processes in the world and very little that is truly unique. I have heard many say “our processes are unique and can’t be modeled.” They may believe that there are no patterns in the processes they perform, “why waste time to try to do something that is impossible.” I have observed many cases where people believe this statement, but no cases where it is true.

You may want to agree with them and initially acknowledge that they might have a problem that isn’t easy to model. Then humbly ask the user to be patient with you. Try the method of walking the process of a single entity and then another. The process will surface. It always does.

  1. Not my area, but this is how it works.

Process interviewing expert for simulation and modeling.Some people believe that they know how the process works from end to end. In reality, I have never met a person that had a complete picture of what happened outside their span of control. Even if they have worked in that area, things might have changed from the time they left that position. Managers are the worst offenders of this problem. They often believe they know more about the detail than they do. For this reason, only interview people that work in the process. Once the interview exceeds the scope of their control, end the meeting, and find that person to which the information/product/service is handed off.

  1. Red herring

Process interviewing red herringThe origin of the term “red herring” seems to come from the practice of dragging smelly fish (herring) in front of the path of hunting dogs to test the hound’s focus. In process interviewing, a “red herring” refers to the practice of raising an unrelated or irrelevant point deliberately to throw an interviewer off the track. People may want to keep some problems hidden. They might continually point toward one area when the known problem is in another. If the interviewee is persuasive, it’s easy to lose focus. Let the process speak. Use the data to point to the problem and drive a solution. The strength of this data-driven approach is to have evidence to back up your conclusions and recommendations. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn away by a red herring.

Process interviewing is always challenging and can be rewarding with a few easy-to-learn techniques. Try the methods above and provide me with your feedback. If you would like to discuss any part of the article or your experiences, contact me on the form below.

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About the Author:

Scott Baird has been president of ProcessModel for more than 15 years. His focus has been to teach others how to improve processes dramatically. He has been successful in transferring these skills to over 200 companies, including ESPN, NASA, GE, Nationwide, Cendant, SSA and many more. Specialties: Group facilitation for process improvement, process design and simulation, simulation modeling, business management and training others to see opportunities. Scott loves to teach process improvement and has often been heard to say, “Of all the things I do, training others to improve processes is my favorite.” Scott is a father of four and a grandfather of eight. He is an avid woodworker, designing and creating presentation boxes. In his spare time, he volunteers in a college preparation program.

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