Interviewing

One of the great tools of root cause analysis, planning, process improvement and knowledge management is the interview. Properly used the interview allows one to gather a great deal of information and perspective and ferret out hidden information.

For interviews to be truly effective, we have to understand how the function and apply a process. Cognitive Interviewing, originally created for law enforcement and later adopted during accident investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), provides an effective framework. I was first introduced to this at my previous company, where it has become a real linchpin, so I share it here.

The two principles here are:

  • Witnesses need time and encouragement to recall information
  • Retrieval cues enhance memory recall

Based on these two principles there are four components:

ComponentWhat It Consists of
Mental ReinstatementEncourage the interviewee to mentally recreate the environment and people involved.
In-Depth ReportingEncourage the reporting of all the details, even if it is minor or not directly related to the purpose of the interview. This is intended to improve the detail and accuracy of memory.

For example, if investigation a computer error, you would encourage the interviewee to discuss everything they were doing around the event. You would hold the interview at the station the error happened, ideally using the computeras much as possible.
Multiple PerspectivesAsk the interviewee to recall the event from others’ points of view. For example, the person upstream or downstream, or a partner or observer.
Several OrdersAsk the interviewee to recount the timeline in different ways. Beginning to end, end to beginning.
Four Components of Cognitive Interviewing

A key part of this is that retrieval cues access memory. This is why doing the interview on the scene (or Gemba) is so effective.

The basic behaviors you want to bring to bear are:

  • Recreate the original context; have them outline and walk you through process to explain how they work.
  • Tell the the witness to actively generate information and not wait passively for the interviewer to ask questions.
  • Adopt the witness’s perspective; ask eyewitness-compatible questions.
  • Perform the interview at the Gemba, the place where the work happens.
  • Listen actively, do not interrupt, and pause after the witness’s response.
  • Ask open-ended questions, utilize short phrases when possible.
  • Encourage the witness to use imagery. Explicitly request detailed descriptions.
  • Follow the sequence of the cognitive interview major components.
  • Bring support materials such as attachments, procedures, and copies of relevant documents.
  • Establish a connection with the witness; demeanor has a big impact.
  • Remember, active listening.
  • Do not tell the interviewee how they made the mistake, blame, or assume.

Active listening is key here.

Active Listening funnel

At the mouth of the funnel we begin with an ‘open’ question. This question is intended to give the interviewee the widest possible scope for responding. Sometimes it may be necessary to repeat or rephrase this question to give the interviewee more thinking time and further opportunities to raise information. Working down the narrowing body of the funnel we use a series of probing questions to draw out further specific information and help complete the picture. Closed questions then have their place to draw out, check or confirm specific pieces of information, or to get the interviewee to commit on a point more precisely. This then brings us to the bottom of the funnel where we clarify, using a short summary, what we have got out of the discussion, aiming to check our understanding of the main points. The question sequence might go something like this:

  • ‘Tell me how you went about…?’ (open)
  • ‘How did you prepare?’ (open – secondary)
  • ‘What was your starting point?’ (probe)
  • ‘So, what happened next?’ (probe)
  • ‘Who else was involved?’ (probe)
  • ‘And how did they respond?’ (probe)
  • ‘What were your thoughts at that stage?’ (probe)
  • ‘What were the main outcomes?’ (probe)
  • ‘So, that took a total of 30 minutes?’ (closed – clarifying)
  • ‘And the task was completed?’ (closed – clarifying)
  • ‘So, let me see if I’ve followed you…’ (checking – summary)

A good interview requires preparation. Have opening questions ready, ensure you have all the right props and the right people involved. That extra hour or two will pay dividends.

Here is a helpful worksheet.