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RFI – Rationally Formatted Inquiry. Is That Asking So Much?

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Considering the simple purpose of the aptly-named Request for Information, it’s surprising what a drag the RFI process can be on project productivity. Compared to the project engineer’s calculations over how best to distribute the gravity load across the surface of the structure, the question-and-answer nature of the RFI would seem to be fairly straightforward. A project player asks for clarification on a detail of the build, and receives it. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is the cash-burning time sink created by a hazily written RFI. It’s already been shown that about 22% of RFIs never get answered at all, probably because the busy recipient can’t take the time to decipher a confusing request.  Clearly the responsibility for an efficiently processed RFI lies, initially, with the Requestor. Vagueness, fuzzy intent, and lack of clarity are the familiar enemies of the RFI. Here are a few easy-to-implement suggestions for making the RFI process as wrinkle-free as possible.

Pose the Interrogative (ask the question)

Obvious? You bet. But it’s surprising how often this most basic component goes missing from the RFI; puzzling the recipient, muddying the waters, and creating unnecessary drag in the process. Make the “request” as obvious and unadorned and specific as possible. Each question should be singular and clear—and answerable! Follow each question with a question mark, as a way of separating issues and focusing on the exact nature of the request. Getting fancy with the questions or trying to intermingle several issues at once in the RFI doesn’t move the ball downfield. Keep it simple. An RFI is a question. Ask it as plainly as possible.

Context. Context. Context. 

Let’s say it again: Context. It is very easy to accidentally compose a request that draws so much from your own experience of the issue, it defies easy penetration by the recipient. That is a time-eater. Construct the question in such a way that absolutely anyone on or off the project can understand it. Look closely at your request. Does it even mildly presume some prior knowledge on the recipient’s part?  A properly contextual RFI should include the exact nature of the misunderstanding, who on the project is impacted, what part of the project process is impacted, where on the build the information is lacking, and a deadline by which a response is needed. An issue doesn’t present in isolation on a project, and neither should its corresponding RFI. Wrap the question lightly in the sort of augmenting detail that brings complete clarity to the RFI.

Picture This

A picture is worth 1,000 words. This truism is perfectly suited to the RFI. Attaching photos, drawings, video, or even a hastily sketched diagram will go a long way toward eliminating confusion about the exact nature of the information being requested. Visuals have a way of cutting straight to the chase, and when combined with your focused questions will assure the RFI is addressed quickly and accurately.

Be Brave. Suggest a Solution

Suggesting a solution not only frames and highlights the central issue of the RFI, that format will also serve to spur the recipient to an immediate “solution mode;” turning an “I’ll have a look at this later” item into an action item.

If you’re in the position to request an RFI, you likely have the professional expertise and situational awareness to include with your very specific question a couple of possible answers of your own. What’s the point of submitting a proposed answer alongside your own question? This practice serves to bring the question into even sharper relief by contrasting the RFI against a rhetorically proposed solution. It’s like darkening the background of a photo in order to helpfully exaggerate the outlines of the subject. You do not have the answers, clearly, or you wouldn’t be producing an RFI.

Technology Provides Transparency

The best Construction Management software solutions include centralized RFI tools that allow the requestor to precisely compose the request within a simple template that leaves no room for vagueness, inaccuracy, or error. Dedicated fields in the template should note the relevant drawing number (to which the RFI may also be digitally linked for even more accuracy), as well as any associated Cost Code, location on the build of the originating issue, the responsible contractor, and the RFI manager, or originator. A ball-in-court field tells all access-permitted project players whose job it is to make the next move on the RFI. A simple button-click makes the RFI “live” and ready to be attended to. These cloud-based solutions make the RFI process as open and transparent as possible. Your team(s) will know where in the process the RFI is, and when to expect resolution.

An RFI is arguably one of the build’s simpler aspects. Unfortunately, this often means the RFI process is paid scant attention by those who figure someone upstream will “figure it out.” The people upstream shouldn’t have to actually figure out what you’re asking. Even a properly done RFI is estimated to cost the project about $1,000. A sloppy RFI can triple that figure, or worse, as the communications bounce back and forth in search of clarity, and this is before a resolution can even be discussed. RFI doesn’t have to stand for Ruinously Foolish and Impulsive. That’s up to you. Hey, it’s only money.

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