What Exactly Is A Fishbone Diagram [a.k.a Ishikawa Diagram]?

Fishbone Diagram is a very simple yet effective Strategic tool. It is used left right and center by management consultants to find root causes of complex management problems.

I am very fond of fish as food. But what is even more fascinating is that how the same fish could also be used as a Strategic Tool. Let us take a look at how.

What is a Fishbone Diagram?

A Fishbone diagram is a simple strategic tool primarily used to identify the root cause for any problem. But this is not how the concept of Fishbone diagrams came into being.

In 1943, Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa formulated a process to identify the causes of a problem. He drew these causal diagrams first to analyze a problem and achieve root cause analysis for the problem.

And so we know how the Ishikawa diagrams got their names.

Also since this diagram mainly focuses on an Effect and its possible causes, it is also known as the Cause and Effect Diagram. Here is how the diagram looks:

Fishbone Structure

If you observe closely, the shape resembles that of a fishbone. Thus, such diagrams are also known as Fishbone Diagrams.

Why is a Fishbone Diagram Used?

Problems make an integral part of any business. There is no company on Earth that does not have any problem. But it has to manage those problems, somehow.

After all, the ultimate goal of every business is to create value for customers and make money.

But businesses can’t survive for long if they are plagued with problems without any timely solutions to them,

So, there ought to be a way to address such problems, find what’s causing them, and treat the root causes.

This is why problem-solvers and management consultants turn to the Fishbone diagram method.

Since this process is simple, structured, visual, and relevant; it reveals a lot of information about the problem and possible causes; thereby hinting at where the solution might lie.

How does a Fishbone diagram work?

Working with a Fishbone diagram is a treat. The method is very easy and therefore widely used among strategy and management consultants to solve complex problems and find solutions.

Here is a step by step guide on how you can use the Fishbone diagram:

Step 1

Firstly, place the effect or the problem on the right side of the page a.k.a head of the fish. 

Step 2

Then, draw a horizontal line across the page

Step 3

Decide on a few broad categories or causes of the problem. Classic fishbone includes – people, methods, materials, equipment, environment, measurement, etc.

Step 4

Now, draw diagonal lines to each of these such that they resemble the bones of the fish. The whole point of doing this is to break down a complex problem and focus on it from various perspectives.

Step 5

After this, you’d have a visual of the problem and the areas from where it could be arising.

This enables us to think deeper in terms of those areas to list down the possible causes. Brainstorming with people closest to those processes/areas is the best practice for this.

I understand these steps are only informative. So, let us take an example of a problem statement and use the fishbone method to solve it.

Problem Statement: How to improve the quality of roads being constructed?

People

Questions such as who are the people constructing the roads? How skilled and experienced are they? Are they ignoring quality checks? Are they working for more hours than they should? How well are they paid appropriately? often bring out various aspects on the people side of the issue.

Methods

To understand the Methods there are questions such as how many road construction methods are available and which one is being used? Is the method impacting the quality of the roads? Can it be further improved or optimized? Is the project being rushed and not given enough time? etc.

Materials

We must find answers to which materials are used for road construction? where are they being sourced from? what are the quality levels of the raw materials such that the end product isn’t of very good quality? in order to know if the Materials could be causing some issue?

Equipment

Equipment is a very common area where most of the issues find their causes. Questions such as what machines are deployed for the task? Are they the latest or out-dated? do they have any damaged parts that need repair/service? make a lot of sense here

Environment

What area is the construction happening at? Can the construction be causing any damage to the roads? What volume of traffic passes over the road? It is subject to what type and size of vehicles? Is the road built with quality but getting degraded faster than normal?

As you can notice, such questions are logical and relevant.

When we get answers to such questions, we’d realize a plethora of things that could be causing the issues we have at hand.

The process reveals a lot of real-time scenarios about the problem in question thereby giving us clues about where our solution might lie.

Fishbone diagram analysis is best done with people who are closest to the concerned processes. We keep asking them “Whys” and Hows” until we have reached a useful level of detail. 

What is even interesting is that Identifying RCA is not the only use of a Fishbone diagram. They can also be adopted to improve processes.

Concluding Thoughts

In Conclusion, I am amazed at how the simple shape of a fishbone can be so useful when used as a strategic tool. 

On a different thought, problem-solving is an evergreen skill to have. Our world is full of problems waiting for us to solve and tools such as the fishbone diagram or Ishikawa diagram come in very handy in doing so. Moreover, they are easy to use too.

If you happen to use this anytime for root cause analysis, please do share with me in the comments section how it worked for you. I am eager to collaborate.

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