Asking effective process discovery questions

Written by Ian James, Nov 2, 2015

Knowing which process discovery questions to ask can ensure you get actionable and efficient answers.

Sketch of man scratching head while asking question of a confused looking question mark

What Questions Should I Be Asking?

The typical process discovery questions are things like “What is your role?” and “How do you perform this task?” We have all at least answered questions like this if we haven’t actually asked them ourselves. There is nothing wrong with them. You need to know the basics.

The trouble is that basic process discovery questions are just that,  basic. They are not sufficient in themselves. There are a number of areas they just don’t get you into. Without insight into these areas, your process improvement initiative is not going to produce the results it could.

So what are these areas? And what are the discovery questions that do get us the answers we need?

The things the standard questions don’t touch on are exceptions, priorities, and consistency.

Process Exceptions

Exceptions screw everything up. If the Pareto rule applies here, and it is surprising how often it does, then 80% of the problems are caused by 20% of the instances of the process that are exceptions.

Questions in this area:

  • What are the exceptions?
  • Why do they occur?
  • How often?
  • What do you do next?
  • How do they get resolved?
  • How long does that take?
  • How disruptive is that?
  • What are your ideas for fixing this?
  • Have you ever tried to make changes?

Competing priorities

By priorities I mean all the other things that are going on. I also use the term “concurrency.” Whatever you call it, it means trying to put the process in question in the context of the user’s other work.

Processes don’t happen in a vacuum. People in offices, as opposed to the factory workers, work on many different processes in a day. So how do they prioritize between competing tasks? It is a crucial question if you want to speed up a process. The time a task spends waiting in in-trays often far exceeds the time spent actually working on it.

Questions in this area:

  • What other work do you do?
  • How many tasks do you receive in a day?
  • How many do your create for yourself in a day?
  • How do you keep track of them?
  • How much time do you spend on [the process we are looking at] rather than other work?
  • How many tasks are in your in-tray right now?
  • Is that typical?
  • How do you decide what you are going to do next?
  • Does anyone ever decide on the priorities for you?
  • What is the oldest task in your list of things to do?
  • Why is it still there?


Consistency is a measure of the degree that different people have to perform the same task in similar ways. Your typical process consultant often overlooks this. I know because I have made this mistake myself. You ask how someone performs a task. They tell you. It never occurs to you to ask “And how do other people do it?”

This problem crops up when there is poor formal training for new hires. Or perhaps there is no business process documentation. Or no one reads it. Sometimes we fail to tell people how to do something. They just had to do it and figure it out for themselves. Surprise! They figured out different ways.

Investigating this area means asking more than one person how they do a given task. Sometimes a supervisor is aware that their reports are doing things differently. It may not matter if there is no difference in outcome. It certainly does if it causes confusion or cost downstream in the process. That might be something that people who are doing things inconsistently are not aware of.

Standard Process Discovery Questions

Standard questions exist for a reason. You need to ask the participants to build up a picture of what is supposed to happen. But then there are these other areas that are really worth digging into.

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