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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

How Do I Write Better Investigation Reports?

If you can’t prevent the problem, here are some tips for documenting it

Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 09:33

It is the end of summer. The golden sun filters through clouds and reflects on a pond, a glimmering silver. Above me, Spanish moss hangs like a wizard’s beard from a giant oak stooping over me, centuries old. The green cathedral canopy against the blue sky has been an unfamiliar sight of late. I lean back comfortably in this deep wrought-iron chair, and realize that this is the first moment where I was not consumed in an investigation and writing a report.

I imagine this is an experience akin to a prisoner completing a sentence and drinking in the outside world for the first time after captivity. I close my eyes and smile. The tension in my shoulders eases. Jefferson Island, where I’m relaxing, has somehow made it seem I’m a million miles away from everything, isolated in this little piece of serenity. It’s a welcome reward after the many hours of hard labor that I poured into addressing a customer’s issue.

Out of all the customer issues I have addressed, this one had the most significance. A team of talented people worked with me to understand and correct the situation, and I’m very grateful for all their efforts. Being around capable individuals is always stimulating, and sometimes the worst situations bring out the brilliance and generosity in people.

After the waves of problems turned to ripples, and ripples subsided to calm, I received praise for the report I had completed. But such a terrible thing this quality issue was for our customer; why should I accept positive feedback on this report?

I’m carrying a lead weight of guilt. I feel guilty, not for getting to the root cause or comprehensively capturing it in words, but for the praise about how it was documented. Perhaps it’s my Scottish disposition, why I cannot fathom or accept compliments. Or maybe I have antibodies within my blood fighting hard to reject the virus of good wishes.

After some reflection I realize that I misinterpreted the comments on the report; they meant that the report was easy to read. The readers quickly understood the issue and how our team got to the root cause, and what actions we are taking. They were giving me feedback. Even though they were not directly involved in the issue, by reading the report, they were able to grasp the situation and experience it in some way.

I’m never proud of reports I create because for the most part, I only get to be involved when capturing bad news. I imagine that many quality professionals have to do similar tasks. I may not be the best at writing investigation reports, but I’d like to share some hints and tips based on my personal experience.

I like to give any report a structure. What I mean by this is making sure it has a beginning, middle, and an end. Start with an introduction describing the problem and the consequences. Then lead into the investigation and the resolution measures. Describe the effect or potential impact the consequences may have on the customer. This will take a little thought. I have been involved in investigations where the consequences were mistaken for the original problem. 

I believe that a structured report must be allowed to flow from one section to the next. Once we have introduced the problem, it’s logical to explain its root cause. However, before we get into the investigation, capture the story of when and how the issue was identified and reported.

Describe how the investigation was established and how you became involved. Think of this description as a bridge, linking one section of the report to another. Through this little trick of words, it makes it easier for the reader, and helps close gaps in the reader’s mind. Gaps are easy to misinterpret and cause the reader to ask questions that can’t be answered immediately. (See the previous tip, particularly the part about mistaking consequences for the problem.)

I love pictures, mainly because I am patently lazy. If a written explanation isn't required, I’ll use an image to express the information. Everyone I know has a camera built into their cell phone, and this makes life so much easier for report writing.

I make a point to include image resources and a one-line explanation of what the reader is looking at. I like to highlight or point to details on the image to help direct the reader’s attention to something of significance. If you use a quality tool, such as a fishbone diagram or a 5-Whys chart, I recommend a quick explanation of the tool.

When addressing technical problems, there is no escape from sounding techy. But if you can, write it in a way that everyone can comprehend. For example, if a theoretical physicist is attempting to explain gravitational forces to a group of schoolchildren, the physicist may choose to use algebraic equations. But he backs them up with an explanation that the students immediately understand, such as the hammer and feather being dropped on the moon.

Write so it can be understood five years from now
I learned from my mentor years ago the importance of considering the reader five years in the future. That reader probably won’t have the luxury of being able to speak to the people involved in the investigation you're documenting. And even if he could, the memories will be faded. It’s challenging to include sufficient details and still allow the report to flow. Thinking like this is useful, though, especially if a similar problem occurs in the distant future.

My final thought on investigation report writing is: Prevent the problems that will require investigation. I’d rather spend my time and skills preventing the need for investigation reports, than being good at writing them.


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.


The Hunt for a Grey October

Donald A. Norman, in his Memory and Attention: An Introduction to Human Information Processing (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) writes that the ancient greek and roman orators did not write their often long speeches but remembered them by "seeing" their speeches as walking inside a house, from one room - or topic - to another. In a recent column of mine a critical path was depicted: that is what should be done, according to my own experience as a report editor, to make a grey october into a cold and sunny, clear november.