Go Fish (for Causes of Problems)

How to Use a Fishbone Diagram

Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” -Henry Kaiser

Do you have problems? Projects running behind schedule? Cycle time for a business process increasing? Sales down? People continuing to live in silos?

Let’s discuss a simple but powerful tool for solving problems – the Fishbone Diagram (alias cause and effect diagram).

How to Complete a Fishbone Diagram

  1. Fishbone diagramIdentify and clarify the problem. State the problem objectively. Ask questions concerning the problem. As Jack Welch said, “Continually expand your definition of the problem, and you expand your view of all the different ways that it can be solved.” Write out the problem or effect on the far-right-hand side of the diagram. Draw a horizontal line (the spine of the fish) to the problem.
  2. Identify the cause categories. For example, use the 4 M categories: Machine, Method, Materials, Manpower. Add the categories to the diagram. Draw diagonal lines (bones of the fish) to each category.
  3. Brainstorm causes for each category. Add causes to the appropriate category lines.
  4. Identify the most significant causes.  Ask the team to identify the most significant causes. Remember the Pareto Principle – 80% of the problem comes from 20% of the causes.
  5. Define the risk response plan. What can be done to eliminate or reduce the most significant causal factors? Who will be responsible for taking actions? When are the actions due?

“A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved.” -Anonymous

Tips for Conducting Fishbone Diagrams

  1. Invite creative problem solvers who lack knowledge of the problem domain. Does this sound counterintuitive? Some people have deeply seated thoughts and assumptions about problems. Ask someone unfamiliar with the problem to participate in the session. Invite them to challenge the norm and bring fresh insights.
  2. Resist the temptation to solve the problem when identifying the problem and causes. Many people prematurely jump to solutions before understanding the problem and causes.
  3. Dig deeper in identifying the causes. Use the 5 Whys technique. Identify the problem and then to ask “why” five times. You may ask “why” less than or more than five times. Continue until you find an actionable root cause.
  4. Use the Fishbone Diagram to analyze an opportunity. For step 1, identify the opportunity rather than a problem. For step 5, seek to exploit or enhance the opportunity.

Question: Describe one problem that you and your stakeholders analyzed using the Fishbone Diagram? What, if anything, surprised you in the exercise?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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