How to Create a Cause and Effect Diagram

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 Cause and Effect Diagram (alias Fishbone Diagram).

Steps to Create a Cause and Effect Diagram

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

Power Tips for Cause and Effect Diagrams

  1. Invite creative problem solvers who lack knowledge of the problem domain. Does this sound counterintuitive? Your team members may have deep-seated thoughts and assumptions about problems. Ask someone unfamiliar with the problem to participate in the session. Invite them to challenge the norm and inject a different perspective.
  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. Seek first to understand.
  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 identify the primary root causes in which you can take actions yielding significant results.
  4. Use the Cause and Effect 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.

It's Your Turn

Are you behind schedule on one of your projects? Develop a cause and effect diagram to identify the causes. And then determine which of the causes had the greatest impact. Don't stop there. Determine how you will minimize the probability and impact of those causes going forward.

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