How to Interview Employees About Process
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
Let’s be real, running a business is extremely hard. There are always a million tasks to do on a thousand fronts. You need to be able to finance, account, market, serve, and operate, and do all of this perfectly so you can end up with some profits at the end of every month.
I know, because I’ve been there. Before I started JANIIS, my career was focused on turnaround consulting. This type of consulting is exactly what it sounds like...if a business or division was struggling, I was brought in to solve the problem and make them successful again. When departments were bloated with heavy costs; when there was a pattern of deadlines being missed; when there was no visibility for managers or owners into their employees’ work; it was my job to come in and turn the tide. For every problem that needed solving, I always went in and focused on one thing: Process.
You may be thinking, “My business isn’t failing so this post isn’t for me”. I completely understand that perception, but something I want to call out based on my experience is that every company should engage in "process improvement activities" no matter the stage. Businesses are a living thing...they ebb and flow constantly. That means if you haven’t re-looked at your process recently, most likely you will find inefficiencies that you didn’t realize were there.
Don’t be hard on yourself if you haven’t taken a second to look at your procedures...it is an easy thing to forget! You’re working, growing...sometimes you may be so busy keeping the business going it will feel like you are drowning in your own operations. This exact feeling is something to avoid, and taking a moment to refocus your process can help with this.
This blog series is dedicated to all owners and managers that make things happen. My hope is to share some tips on how you can improve and scale your business.
In the last post, I gave a broad overview of how to examine your business’s process. In these subsequent posts, I am going to dive deeper into each element:
How to Interview Employees About Process
How to Process Map
How to Find Bad Process
How to Identify Solutions to Bad Process
How to Implement Process Solutions in Your Business
How to Interview Employees About Process
The first step in process improvement is interviewing each of your employees individually. I know this sounds time consuming, especially if you have multiple employees that perform the same task. To save time, you may be tempted to interview those people in a group interview. I would strongly advise against this. It is the one-on-one interview that will ultimately reveal bad process. You will often hear different versions of how to perform the same task, and it’s those differences that provide clarity into whether the procedure is wasting time and resource or not.
Starting the Interview
Before you interview the individual, it’s important to approach it in the right headspace. In many ways, you are like a therapist. You’re there to unpack that person’s frustrations and blockers in their work. This is not a time to shake down the employee- in fact it’s the complete opposite. The interview is about finding ways to help that person be more successful. It may be slow going at first. Being asked granular questions by a superior can be nerve wracking; this is a really great breakdown of the interview from an employee's perspective. It is also worth noting that interviewing an employee who knows they should be doing more will often take the longest. You will receive more ambiguous, unclear answers.
A good way to begin is by introducing yourself, and be warm and conversational. Ask them how their day is going, and convey to them that asking about their procedure is not meant to be an interrogation. They shouldn’t be afraid there are right or wrong answers- because there aren’t! You are there to learn what they do, and then find ways to make their day easier. This whole interview is about them.
If you’re new to process mapping, I recommend recording the interview, taking notes, and then drawing the map afterwards. After the first two to three meetings, you’ll be able to process map as you're interviewing. You can do this on post its, note cards on the table, or on a whiteboard. Adding a visual element encourages the idea that you are both working together, versus just a superior interviewing an employee.
As the interviewee relaxes, encourage and validate them. If they say something is frustrating because it takes 3 days, commiserate with them that yes, you would be frustrated too! Overall, you want to drive home that you are on their side and this is about making their life easier.
Asking the Right Questions
From there, one of the first things you want to do is get a high level understanding of their position's responsibilities. Finding that out is easy- you simply say: “So, what do you do?”. As they explain each aspect of their position, there are 3 details you must know:
Where they are performing the task. A particular software system? Email?
How long the task takes them. If there are multiple steps, make sure to ask how long those individual steps take.
Why are they performing the task that way?
The latter question can throw many people off! If they seem flustered, make sure to reiterate that there is no right or wrong answer. If they aren’t sure how to respond, you can help out with follow up questions: Are they performing the task that way because that’s how they’ve been trained? Because they assumed that was the way to do it? Or because that’s how the software they’re using works?
The latter question is the most important because it tells you whether it is the person, or the software, that is dictating process. As we will learn later in this post, knowing that distinction will be key in improving your business’s operations.
As the interview progresses and you learn their individual tasks, iteratively take a step back and mirror the procedure back to them. Often, they will remember a step they left out. Make sure to take things slowly, and as they tell you each action, continue asking where, how long, and why.
You will know when you have reached the end of their responsibilities when they have a ‘stop’ moment. This means that they hand off their work to someone else, and then their process begins again. At the very end of the process interview, make sure to go through the entire map with them to make sure nothing was missed. Or, if you process mapped after the fact, have a quick follow up meeting with them to make sure nothing was left out.
Finding the Answers
Once the interview is over, you will want to analyze the process map. We will go into more detail on to how to do this, but for now the biggest item you want to look for is overall cycle time:
How long does this process take them, and why?
How can you shorten the timeline and reduce process?
A great place to start is to identify which tasks are manual. This includes things like when the person is building, creating, entering, checking, or verifying something. A manual process also involves waiting, ie: emailing someone and having to wait for a response.
These are areas where you are losing money; wasted process is wasted funds.
Putting this into context: If you are managing 50 properties, and your payroll is $250,000, does that mean if you wanted to manage 100 properties your payroll would need to be $500,000? Absolutely not! You need the ability to grow your inventory while your operational costs remain unchanged. That is the key to scaling a successful, profitable business.
Generally, the easiest way to mitigate manual process is with automation: software. Now, not all software is created equal. This is where you come back to the drive of the process: the person? Or the software? Often, the red flag that indicates the software is forcing bad process is when you ask the employee why they’re doing the task the way they are. Pay very close attention if their response is: “that’s just how the software works”, or “that’s how I have to do it”, particularly if it requires a lot of manual process (entering data repeatedly, frequently having to verify something is correct, and so on). If the software is slowing the employee down, if it’s forcing them to work in multiple systems with multiple steps, it is costing you money. The main function of software is that it should be making process faster. Luckily, the solution to subpar software is simple. Replace it!
We will go into further detail about finding solutions for your wasted process, but just to reiterate, wasted process is wasted money. If left unchecked, it will cripple your business’s growth. By regularly process mapping with your employees and implementing solutions, you can make sure your operations remain as efficient as possible. This will not only empower your staff, but your business as a whole will grow and be more profitable...all because you interviewed someone.