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A Practical Approach to the Fishbone Diagram

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A new project represents an opportunity to change things for the better and, with the right tools, to work on the root causes (root cause analysis) while avoiding the risk of only considering the most obvious aspects (the famous squeaky wheel).

In order to determine areas of intervention, we have a range of tools at our disposal, including the indispensable fishbone diagram, which combines brainstorming and mind mapping techniques to discover the relationship between cause and effect. The aim is to encourage consideration of all the possible causes of a problem, allowing the team to break free from perceptions and gain a more complete perspective through the visual picture that is created before everyone’s eyes.

The tool, which can be found under various names (Cause-Effect Diagram, Ishikawa, Fishbone), has different methods of approach. Let us take a look at a practical approach within a working group in order to obtain a more complete picture in a short time.

The problem is placed like the head of the fish (facing right) and, the causes extend to the left like the bones of the skeleton; the ribs branch off the back and denote the major causes, while we can create branches for the deeper causes. The causes mimic the bones of the fish skeleton. The fishbone construction can branch out at as many levels as necessary to determine the causes of the underlying problem.

Phase 0 : The Team

The working group must be complete and functions that are directly involved in the process must not be missing. It is necessary to ensure that this is the right opportunity to gather everyone’s thoughts. This will prove successful throughout the project and will increase the chances of successful change management.

Phase 1: Brainstorming

  1. Choose a facilitator, i.e. someone to help keep time and make sure to keep the focus on the issue, moderating the group dynamics. This person will explain the rules of brainstorming and collaboration and, if the conversation becomes stagnant in one aspect, should give input to revive the exchange.
  1. Give a second person the role of the recorder, who will write down the inputs of the brainstorming session, ensuring that everything is recorded. Documentation could range from a simple list to the use of an elaborate post-it system, but direct input into the fishbone diagram could also be valid if experienced.
  1. Give one person the role of the customer and give him/her the task of explaining the problem to the group. The customer presents for ten minutes without interruption. In this time, aspects will emerge which have not been considered so far and it will be possible to pay attention to perceptions of cause and effect relationships.

The facilitator can document key points on a shared board, important numbers, organisational structure and the like to ensure that everyone has the same understanding. At the end of this session, the problem should be agreed and defined in clear terms (e.g. “why do some orders take twice as long to process?”) and marked as the head of the fishbone diagram

  1. In the next phase, the group is free to ask questions to clarify certain points. They should be open questions that allow the customer to elaborate their own answers. Examples might include:
  • Why is this important to you?
  • If you could solve one issue within the next 90 days, what would it be?
  • Why was a certain issue not there before?
  1. At this point, we give space for discussion among the participants to understand where intervention may be required. The customer joins in documenting contributions with the recorder, but does not participate except to provide clarification. This point is important, the facilitator needs to avoid a dynamic of “justifications” that would carry away from the conversation.

At the end of the brainstorming, the customer, facilitator and recorder can also be given the opportunity to participate by entering 1 input each and adding further points of view.

Phase 2: Entering Data in the Cause-Effect Diagram

Once the data collection phase is over, we classify the inputs (associated with each label) and categorise them in the fishbone. If necessary, we can use the “5 Why” tool and let the first evaluation mature to a more complete view.

If you are not sure which labels to use, this list might be a good starting point:

  • Process
  • People
  • Equipment
  • Material
  • Measurement
  • Environment

How to select the right label?

Figuring out which label is the right one is not always easy: in many cases, the problem has a different profile if you look at it from a new angle. Let’s take an example:

Problem– “Request incomplete because documents are missing or presented in an outdated template”.

Why? – “Because they are processed on individuals’ computers”.

Why? – “Because the online template is not the latest version”.

Why? – “Because the person who was in charge of the update left and we did not complete the handover”.

Why? – “Perché il training richiede troppo tempo”

For example, we could assume that a problem is related to the “Process”, but following the questions we could then associate it with “People” – where we could analyse the causes that led some employees not to receive the training – and from there move on to “Equipment” and ask if the tools are too complex or if the off-boarding and on-boarding phase needs intervention.

To overcome the problem, we use 3 principles :

  1. Make sure that each area of intervention is manageable by the group involved in the brainstorming (remit of competence), in order to have an impact in the short term;
  1. Distribute the causes in such a way that different departments collaborate in solving them collectively and that there is no imbalance towards one team or another by placing all the responsibility for change on them;
  1. Identify which aspects can be automated to take advantage of the momentum created by brainstorming and bring about a tangible improvement without waiting for the end of the project.

How to use the completed diagram?

Once the diagram has been fully documented, it should be shared with the project sponsor to inform about progress and acknowledge the team’s contribution.

The next step will be an effort/impact matrix to assess which intervention areas have the greatest potential.

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