Seven questions fostering efficiency

Managers, how many times a day are you interrupted by a colleague or a subordinate who comes to you with a problem, a suggestion, a complaint or a great idea?
How many times, when this happens, is the person able to explain in a logical and concise way what makes him/her disturb you?

Not very often I guess, I had my own share of this kind of disruptions!

Now be honest, how many times when YOU have a problem, a suggestion, a complaint or a great idea do YOU refrain from rushing to your colleagues, subordinates or boss and prepare a logical and concise little piece of valuable information before your dash?


Seven questions fostering efficiency – Part one, reporting.

When reporting, suggesting or sharing a great idea, you probably want to have it done right first time. If you are the receiver and are disturbed in a task by someone reporting, you expect the disturbance being worth it. “Worth” meaning receiving meaningful and complete information at once and not in a string of “oh, I must check”.

Here are seven questions for efficient reporting:

1. What?

What is the problem, the suggestion, complaint or great idea?
Take time to state it in a full sentence that makes sense and be as precise as possible in your description.

Ambiguity may be useful in some case like telling grandMa “The cat is gone”, which either means the cat escaped or was flattened by a passing truck, but for the sake of efficiency in business you better mind any possible ambiguity.

Most often ambiguity leads to misunderstandings and bad decisions.

Remember that very few people, if any, can read your mind. Do not expect people to catch what you don’t say, even if you move your hands a lot italian style.

Explain in a concise but complete way and assume what remains unspoken remains unknown.

A sketch, a picture or a diagram is worth a thousand words as you know. If there is no urgency, taking time for a little drawing can be a good idea.

2. Who?

Who does it concern? Who is the victim? Who is the witness? Who was first to discover or to report?

In case of a business / quality issue, it is mandatory to protect the customer, especially in B2B where customer is identified, thus knowing soon who the issue will harm is important. While mitigating/limiting the risk, it is advised to inform customer beforehand and insure every action will be taken to protect him/her from trouble.

In case of accident, knowing “who” is also capital, for instance medical care will not be exactly the same if it is a kid, an adult, an elderly person or a group of people.

Who was first / who reported first is also important to assess the credibility of the source of information. It makes a big difference if a quality issue is reported by Albert Kamus, quality control expert or if the source of information is “I heard say…”

If the client him/herself is the informator, whether there is an official claim or not, the harm is done.

Who means also who is in charge, who is already or will soon taking care?

3. When?

It is important to understand at what moment the event took place, the problem was discovered. Is it something new or something around for some while? Is it a one shot or frequent? What is the frequency?

A new problem may need more investigations then something already known. The effort and resources have to be adapted.

A problem that reappears is a problem that wasn’t solved. Therefore the frequency information is an important clue: the countermeasure is not satisfactory so far and needs to be reconsidered.

Old problems still are problems and need attention too. Elder problems regarded as secondary may be a constant pain to someone. If the constant pain never receives attention, the person may find ways to overcome it and can make things worse, endanger herself or breaks some rule.

4. Where?

Knowing the location(s) of the problem is another important basic information. Can you imagine calling the firemen for a raging fire but unable to tell them where to come for rescue?

Sounds silly but how often do people report problems about a shipment but don’t know where the shipment physically is. It makes a huge difference if the shipment is still in the facility and can be recovered / reworked or if it has left and the problem now is on a bigger scale.

Assume you’re the boss of company with several facilities around the world, you need to know where the problem occurred and if it is limited to one spot or a global issue affecting every facility.

Within one facility knowing the location is also important. In a pharma or electronic factory with cleanrooms you cannot just enter certain zones at will.

5. How?

How could this happen? One a the first question anyone surprised by a problem would like to ask and the kind of question that come a bit too soon. It is probable that when reporting early, the circumstances and facts about a problem are not completely known, if at all.

It is better to refrain assuming and admit there is no reliable information at the moments, assumptions are often taken as facts in such moments.

How are we/you going to fix it? How to prevent spreading? How to get it done? are “better” questions as they focus on short term acting, the way to proceed and the required resources.

6. How many?

This question calls for metrics. What is the extent of problem in terms of units? Units may be items, monetary units, packaging units… Do you have statistics? Data?

This question is all about objectivity and “talking with facts and figures”. You may know this famous saying: “in God we trust, all others bring data”.

If you can’t provide figures and facts, you are asking the other person to rely on his/her gut feeling to assess the situation, idea or suggestion or ask for an act of faith.

This is not always welcome by someone taken unprepared, especially if this person trusts more figures than his/her guts.

7. Why?

Why this happened is not often an answer you may get or give immediately. A new problem must be analyzed about its causes first. For known issues some explanations may already be known.

Why me? Why are you going to see this person / Why is this person coming to you?

Is this person contributing to the problem or the solution? Is it only for information?

Do you have structured the case and have some data so that the information is as complete and relevant as possible?

Why? is also a question you may ask after all previous six questions: what, who, when, where, how and how many. It helps checking the robustness of the information, facts and data you provide …or not.

Wrapping-up

At this point you realize they are many more questions than seven, but the seven are key to structure the case and are easy to remember.

You may also say these are the famous 5W2H, famous since the heyday of Total Quality Management in the 1970-1980 and you’re right.

I didn’t promise anything new, just wondered when you used them last time. Feel free to answer in a comment.

As a manager you may advise your subordinates to use the 5W2H before they come to you with some issue to report, complaint, suggestion or great idea.

As a subordinate or colleague, YOU may use 5W2H before YOU go see them with some issue to report, complaint, suggestion or great idea.

Chris HOHMANN


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