The Fishbone Diagram In A Nutshell

  • The Fishbone Diagram is a root cause analysis that assists in accurately identifying the causes of an effect, event, or problem.
  • The Fishbone Diagram is a collaborative and thorough five-step process involving teams of employees.
  • To be effective, the Fishbone Diagram technique requires a diverse range of perspectives and the ability to correctly identify the most likely causes.

The Fishbone Diagram is a diagram-based technique used in brainstorming to identify potential causes for a problem, thus it is a visual representation of cause and effect. The problem or effect serves as the head of the fish. Possible causes of the problem are listed on the individual “bones” of the fish. This encourages problem-solving teams to consider a wide range of alternatives.

Understanding the Fishbone Diagram

A Fishbone Diagram is simply a visual representation of cause and effect. The problem or effect serves as the head of the fish.

Possible causes of the problem are listed on the individual “bones” of the fish and where possible, are grouped into categories on each bone.

Through the use of categories, Fishbone Diagrams encourage problem-solving teams to consider a wide range of alternative, less-obvious causes. 

Cause and effect diagrams can also:

  • Help businesses understand where or why a process is not working. 
  • Be used in product development where the product concerned is intending to solve a consumer problem.
  • Identify potential problems before they arise, such as the teething problems associated with new product launches.

For example, Mazda used the Fishbone Diagram to design their now iconic MX-5 sportscar.

Engineers even used the diagram to identify that the current design of the door would not allow the driver to rest their arm on it while driving.

How to use the Fishbone Diagram

Using the Fishbone Diagram in practice is relatively simple, but the technique is nevertheless a powerful way to unearth causes to problems.

Teams of employees should follow this 5-step process:

Define the problem, and then write it at the mouth of the fish

The problem itself should as clear and concise as possible. Make sure there is an agreement between all team members before proceeding.

Define the categories of causes, and then write them along the bones of the skeleton of the fish

Categories will vary from industry to industry, but common categories include the environment, procedure, human resourcing, and equipment.

Brainstorm potential causes

Begin with the question “Why does this happen?” and then write each response as a branch of the relevant category. 

Probe further

For the answers gleaned in step 3, ask the same question once more. These “sub-causes” can be written as secondary branches and are particularly important for large or complex causes that need further investigation.

When the group has run out of ideas, it’s time to investigate the causes in more detail.

Look for causes that appear more than once but with slightly different wording.

Employee or consumer surveys can also be used to verify the validity of particular causes.

Fishbone Diagram best practices

Creative a diverse team

Although the temptation may be to create a team who has direct experience with the problem, it’s more beneficial to include other employees too.

Outside employees who do not directly deal with the problem can bring a balanced, unbiased, and objective stance.

Clarify the major cause categories

In business and marketing, the 8 Ps of product marketing is a good place to start. In other words: product, price, place, promotion, personnel, process, physical evidence, and performance.

Keep it (relatively) simple

Fishbone Diagrams with many potential causes quickly become cluttered and confusing. Consider asking each member of the team to vote for their four most probable causes.

From there, choose the four categories that received the most votes and begin the process.

Fishbone diagram examples

Supermarket chain

In the first example, consider a supermarket chain that wants to determine the probable causes of items that are delayed, damaged, or incorrect once delivered to its stores.

On the fishbone diagram, the team describes the main problem at the mouth of the fish.

They write the following: “Items that are incorrectly picked in the warehouse, experience delayed delivery, or are damaged in transit”.

Next, the team defines five problem cause categories and answers the question “Why does this happen?” for each:

  • Materials – improper packing material, wrong product received from warehouse or from supplier.
  • Personnel – product mishandling, negligence, human error, a shortage of truck drivers.
  • Measurements – incorrect delivery time estimate. 
  • Environment – heat, humidity, and rain damage, poor road quality.
  • Machines – improper delivery vehicle, improper use of a forklift to unload items, faulty or unreliable inventory management system.

As per step three in the process, the team then probes further by asking the question of “Why does this happen?” once more to identify sub-causes.

For example:

  • Improper packing material – cheaper materials are used to save time and money.
  • Product mishandling – employees are not trained in the correct way to handle stock and, in any case, are not motivated to protect company property.
  • Incorrect delivery time estimate – deliveries are sent out during peak hour traffic, which frequently causes delays.
  • Heat damage – perishable items such as chocolate are not transported in trucks with refrigeration.
  • Unreliable inventory management system – old, outdated, and not upgraded due to cost constraints.

Software subscription

In the second example, let’s repeat the process with a software company that realized 55% of its users were canceling their subscription after the first month.

With the core problem identified, the team then considered the processes that were likely contributing to the issue.

Four key areas were identified, with some theoretical problem causes listed for each:

  1. Users – a lack of awareness concerning the full benefits of the software, lackluster customer support, user onboarding problems, and a tendency to not use the software consistently.
  2. Software – software is difficult to use, software is buggy or unstable, installation requires several additional plugins, and full functionality requires additional payment.
  3. Subscription system – a lack of payment options, credit card expiry dates voiding automatic renewal, a lack of reminders that payment is imminent, and a payments interface that is not user-friendly.
  4. Marketing – the absence of relationship marketing initiatives, a lack of rewards or incentives for repeat subscribers, and the ability to keep the product or service top-of-mind among consumers.

Now let’s take a look at some potential sub-causes that the team must then evaluate to determine how each affects customer retention:

  • Lackluster customer support – inadequate training of the customer support team.
  • Software usability issues – the product was rushed to market before it was ready.
  • A lack of reminders that payment is imminent – a somewhat outdated belief that businesses should not contact customers unnecessarily.
  • The absence of relationship marketing initiatives – an inexperienced marketing team that does not realize the power of relationship marketing as a tool to foster customer retention.

Manufacturing Defects

In this scenario, a manufacturing company wants to address the issue of increasing defects in their products. The core problem stated at the mouth of the fish is, “Increase in product defects.”

The main problem is then broken down into several categories:

  1. Materials: Poor-quality raw materials, incorrect specifications.
  2. Manpower: Lack of training, inadequate skills, insufficient workforce.
  3. Methods: Outdated manufacturing processes, lack of quality control.
  4. Machines: Malfunctioning equipment, lack of maintenance, outdated machinery.
  5. Measurement: Inaccurate testing equipment, inconsistent quality checks.

For each category, sub-causes are identified:

  • Lack of training: Inadequate budget allocated for employee training.
  • Outdated manufacturing processes: Resistance to change among long-time employees.
  • Malfunctioning equipment: Irregular maintenance schedule.
  • Inaccurate testing equipment: Lack of calibration.

Customer Complaints

Imagine a telecommunications company facing a significant increase in customer complaints regarding network connectivity issues. The core problem stated on the fishbone diagram is, “Rising Network Connectivity Complaints.”

The problem is further dissected into categories:

  1. Network Infrastructure: Equipment failure, outdated technology.
  2. Customer Devices: Incompatibility, device issues.
  3. Service Providers: Third-party network problems, lack of communication.
  4. Environmental Factors: Weather-related disruptions, geographic challenges.
  5. Maintenance: Irregular maintenance schedules, lack of preventive measures.

Sub-causes for each category are identified:

  • Equipment failure: Lack of redundancy in critical network components.
  • Incompatibility: Failure to update device compatibility lists.
  • Third-party network problems: Insufficient collaboration with third-party providers.
  • Weather-related disruptions: Lack of weatherproofing in critical infrastructure.
  • Irregular maintenance schedules: Failure to implement a proactive maintenance calendar.

Employee Turnover

A software development company is concerned about a high rate of employee turnover. The core problem in the fishbone diagram is, “High Employee Turnover Rate.”

The problem is categorized into several areas:

  1. Work Environment: Lack of work-life balance, stressful work conditions.
  2. Compensation: Below-average salaries, inadequate benefits.
  3. Management: Ineffective leadership, lack of career growth opportunities.
  4. Workload: Overwhelming project demands, unrealistic deadlines.
  5. Hiring Process: Insufficient screening, poor onboarding.

Sub-causes for each category are determined:

  • Lack of work-life balance: Expectation of working long hours without adequate breaks.
  • Below-average salaries: Failure to conduct regular salary reviews.
  • Ineffective leadership: Lack of management training programs.
  • Overwhelming project demands: Inaccurate project estimations.

Website Traffic Drop

A digital marketing agency is dealing with a sudden drop in website traffic for one of its clients. The core problem stated at the head of the fishbone diagram is, “Significant Drop in Website Traffic.”

The problem is divided into the following categories:

  1. Content: Poor-quality content, lack of fresh updates.
  2. SEO Strategy: Algorithm changes, outdated SEO tactics.
  3. Technical Issues: Slow page loading, broken links, server downtime.
  4. Competitive Landscape: Increased competition, similar content saturation.
  5. Marketing Efforts: Reduced ad spend, lack of social media engagement.

Sub-causes for each category are explored:

  • Poor-quality content: Reliance on outdated content creation methods.
  • Algorithm changes: Lack of adaptability to search engine algorithm updates.
  • Slow page loading: Insufficient hosting resources.

Key takeaways

  • Fishbone Diagram Overview: The Fishbone Diagram, also known as the Ishikawa Diagram or Cause-and-Effect Diagram, is a visual tool used for problem-solving and analysis. It was developed by Kaoru Ishikawa, a Japanese quality control expert. The diagram gets its name from its appearance, resembling the skeletal structure of a fish. It provides a structured and systematic approach to understanding the relationship between a specific problem or effect and its potential causes.
  • Components of a Fishbone Diagram:
    • Head of the Fish: At the “head” of the fish, the problem or effect that needs analysis is written. This central element represents the issue being investigated.
    • Bones of the Fish: Extending from the head, the “bones” represent different categories or areas that could contribute to the problem. These categories are usually identified as major factors influencing the problem.
  • Purpose and Benefits:
    • The Fishbone Diagram is a powerful tool for brainstorming and problem-solving because it helps teams explore a wide range of potential causes systematically.
    • By visually representing the cause-and-effect relationships, the diagram enables teams to understand the complexities of a problem and identify both obvious and less-obvious contributing factors.
  • Application of Fishbone Diagrams:
    • Operational Processes: Businesses can use Fishbone Diagrams to identify factors causing inefficiencies or breakdowns in their processes. By examining categories such as people, processes, technology, and materials, organizations can pinpoint root causes and improve their operations.
    • Product Development: In product design and development, Fishbone Diagrams can reveal issues affecting product quality. By analyzing factors related to design, manufacturing, materials, and human factors, teams can enhance product performance and user satisfaction.
    • Risk Management: The diagram can help anticipate potential problems before they occur. By identifying causes that could lead to future issues, organizations can take preventive measures to minimize risks.
  • Example: Mazda’s Use of Fishbone Diagram:
    • In the context of Mazda’s MX-5 sports car design, engineers used the Fishbone Diagram to explore potential design flaws that might affect the driving experience.
    • Categories like ergonomics, design details, and user preferences were considered to identify potential areas for improvement.
    • The diagram allowed Mazda’s team to address issues early in the design process and create a more user-friendly and appealing product.
  • Steps to Create a Fishbone Diagram:
    • Step 1: Define the Problem: Clearly articulate the problem or effect that needs analysis. Write it at the head of the fish.
    • Step 2: Identify Categories: Define the major categories of causes that could contribute to the problem. These categories will vary based on the context of the problem.
    • Step 3: Brainstorm Potential Causes: Within each category, brainstorm potential causes by asking “Why does this happen?” Write down all possible causes.
    • Step 4: Probe Further: For each potential cause identified in step 3, ask “Why does this happen?” again to dig deeper and identify sub-causes or contributing factors.
    • Step 5: Investigate and Validate: Research or survey to validate the potential causes and their impact. Determine which causes are most likely contributing to the problem.
  • Best Practices for Using Fishbone Diagrams:
    • Diverse Team: Assemble a team with a variety of perspectives and expertise. This diversity ensures comprehensive analysis and reduces bias.
    • Clear Categories: Define clear and relevant categories that align with the problem. This helps guide the brainstorming process and keeps it organized.
    • Simplicity: Avoid overcrowding the diagram with too many potential causes. Prioritize the most significant causes and sub-causes to maintain clarity.
  • Examples of Fishbone Diagrams:
    • Supermarket Chain Example: In this scenario, a supermarket chain aims to identify why items experience delays, damage, or incorrect delivery. Categories like materials, personnel, measurements, environment, and machines are considered, each leading to potential sub-causes.
    • Software Subscription Example: For a software company facing high subscription cancellations, categories such as users, software, subscription system, and marketing are explored. Sub-causes within each category are investigated to identify root causes.
  • Key Takeaways:
    • The Fishbone Diagram is a versatile tool applicable to various industries and scenarios.
    • Its systematic approach encourages comprehensive problem analysis and solutions.
    • Effective use of Fishbone Diagrams requires collaboration, clear categorization, and validation of potential causes to address underlying issues successfully.

Connected Analysis Frameworks

Failure Mode And Effects Analysis

A failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) is a structured approach to identifying design failures in a product or process. Developed in the 1950s, the failure mode and effects analysis is one the earliest methodologies of its kind. It enables organizations to anticipate a range of potential failures during the design stage.

Agile Business Analysis

Agile Business Analysis (AgileBA) is certification in the form of guidance and training for business analysts seeking to work in agile environments. To support this shift, AgileBA also helps the business analyst relate Agile projects to a wider organizational mission or strategy. To ensure that analysts have the necessary skills and expertise, AgileBA certification was developed.

Business Valuation

Business valuations involve a formal analysis of the key operational aspects of a business. A business valuation is an analysis used to determine the economic value of a business or company unit. It’s important to note that valuations are one part science and one part art. Analysts use professional judgment to consider the financial performance of a business with respect to local, national, or global economic conditions. They will also consider the total value of assets and liabilities, in addition to patented or proprietary technology.

Paired Comparison Analysis

A paired comparison analysis is used to rate or rank options where evaluation criteria are subjective by nature. The analysis is particularly useful when there is a lack of clear priorities or objective data to base decisions on. A paired comparison analysis evaluates a range of options by comparing them against each other.

Monte Carlo Analysis

The Monte Carlo analysis is a quantitative risk management technique. The Monte Carlo analysis was developed by nuclear scientist Stanislaw Ulam in 1940 as work progressed on the atom bomb. The analysis first considers the impact of certain risks on project management such as time or budgetary constraints. Then, a computerized mathematical output gives businesses a range of possible outcomes and their probability of occurrence.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

A cost-benefit analysis is a process a business can use to analyze decisions according to the costs associated with making that decision. For a cost analysis to be effective it’s important to articulate the project in the simplest terms possible, identify the costs, determine the benefits of project implementation, assess the alternatives.

CATWOE Analysis

The CATWOE analysis is a problem-solving strategy that asks businesses to look at an issue from six different perspectives. The CATWOE analysis is an in-depth and holistic approach to problem-solving because it enables businesses to consider all perspectives. This often forces management out of habitual ways of thinking that would otherwise hinder growth and profitability. Most importantly, the CATWOE analysis allows businesses to combine multiple perspectives into a single, unifying solution.

VTDF Framework

It’s possible to identify the key players that overlap with a company’s business model with a competitor analysis. This overlapping can be analyzed in terms of key customers, technologies, distribution, and financial models. When all those elements are analyzed, it is possible to map all the facets of competition for a tech business model to understand better where a business stands in the marketplace and its possible future developments.

Pareto Analysis

The Pareto Analysis is a statistical analysis used in business decision making that identifies a certain number of input factors that have the greatest impact on income. It is based on the similarly named Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of the effect of something can be attributed to just 20% of the drivers.

Comparable Analysis

A comparable company analysis is a process that enables the identification of similar organizations to be used as a comparison to understand the business and financial performance of the target company. To find comparables you can look at two key profiles: the business and financial profile. From the comparable company analysis it is possible to understand the competitive landscape of the target organization.

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

PESTEL Analysis

The PESTEL analysis is a framework that can help marketers assess whether macro-economic factors are affecting an organization. This is a critical step that helps organizations identify potential threats and weaknesses that can be used in other frameworks such as SWOT or to gain a broader and better understanding of the overall marketing environment.

Business Analysis

Business analysis is a research discipline that helps driving change within an organization by identifying the key elements and processes that drive value. Business analysis can also be used in Identifying new business opportunities or how to take advantage of existing business opportunities to grow your business in the marketplace.

Financial Structure

In corporate finance, the financial structure is how corporations finance their assets (usually either through debt or equity). For the sake of reverse engineering businesses, we want to look at three critical elements to determine the model used to sustain its assets: cost structure, profitability, and cash flow generation.

Financial Modeling

Financial modeling involves the analysis of accounting, finance, and business data to predict future financial performance. Financial modeling is often used in valuation, which consists of estimating the value in dollar terms of a company based on several parameters. Some of the most common financial models comprise discounted cash flows, the M&A model, and the CCA model.

Value Investing

Value investing is an investment philosophy that looks at companies’ fundamentals, to discover those companies whose intrinsic value is higher than what the market is currently pricing, in short value investing tries to evaluate a business by starting by its fundamentals.

Buffet Indicator

The Buffet Indicator is a measure of the total value of all publicly-traded stocks in a country divided by that country’s GDP. It’s a measure and ratio to evaluate whether a market is undervalued or overvalued. It’s one of Warren Buffet’s favorite measures as a warning that financial markets might be overvalued and riskier.

Financial Analysis

Financial accounting is a subdiscipline within accounting that helps organizations provide reporting related to three critical areas of a business: its assets and liabilities (balance sheet), its revenues and expenses (income statement), and its cash flows (cash flow statement). Together those areas can be used for internal and external purposes.

Post-Mortem Analysis

Post-mortem analyses review projects from start to finish to determine process improvements and ensure that inefficiencies are not repeated in the future. In the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), this process is referred to as “lessons learned”.

Retrospective Analysis

Retrospective analyses are held after a project to determine what worked well and what did not. They are also conducted at the end of an iteration in Agile project management. Agile practitioners call these meetings retrospectives or retros. They are an effective way to check the pulse of a project team, reflect on the work performed to date, and reach a consensus on how to tackle the next sprint cycle.

Root Cause Analysis

In essence, a root cause analysis involves the identification of problem root causes to devise the most effective solutions. Note that the root cause is an underlying factor that sets the problem in motion or causes a particular situation such as non-conformance.

Blindspot Analysis


Break-even Analysis

A break-even analysis is commonly used to determine the point at which a new product or service will become profitable. The analysis is a financial calculation that tells the business how many products it must sell to cover its production costs.  A break-even analysis is a small business accounting process that tells the business what it needs to do to break even or recoup its initial investment. 

Decision Analysis

Stanford University Professor Ronald A. Howard first defined decision analysis as a profession in 1964. Over the ensuing decades, Howard has supervised many doctoral theses on the subject across topics including nuclear waste disposal, investment planning, hurricane seeding, and research strategy. Decision analysis (DA) is a systematic, visual, and quantitative decision-making approach where all aspects of a decision are evaluated before making an optimal choice.

DESTEP Analysis

A DESTEP analysis is a framework used by businesses to understand their external environment and the issues which may impact them. The DESTEP analysis is an extension of the popular PEST analysis created by Harvard Business School professor Francis J. Aguilar. The DESTEP analysis groups external factors into six categories: demographic, economic, socio-cultural, technological, ecological, and political.

STEEP Analysis

The STEEP analysis is a tool used to map the external factors that impact an organization. STEEP stands for the five key areas on which the analysis focuses: socio-cultural, technological, economic, environmental/ecological, and political. Usually, the STEEP analysis is complementary or alternative to other methods such as SWOT or PESTEL analyses.

STEEPLE Analysis

The STEEPLE analysis is a variation of the STEEP analysis. Where the step analysis comprises socio-cultural, technological, economic, environmental/ecological, and political factors as the base of the analysis. The STEEPLE analysis adds other two factors such as Legal and Ethical.

Other related business frameworks:

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