The World of Work Project

Fishbone Analysis (Ishikawa Diagram)

Fishbone analysis is a visual method used to help capture and understand the root causes to a problem. Completed diagrams look like a fish skeleton.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Fishbone Analysis

Fishbone analysis (also known as Ishikawa diagrams) are a visual tool that helps individuals and teams captured and understand the root causes to a specific problem.

The problem statement that is being considered is captured in the fish’s head. The specific root-causes that contribute to the problem are captured along the fish’s fins (or rib bones) and the major causes of the problem are captured at the ends of the fins.

This approach produces comprehensive visualizations of problems which help with the solution process. When designing solutions, it’s important to ensure that any proposed solution addresses the major root causes that have been identified.

Using it in practice

Fishbone analysis is often part of a more comprehensive approach to team problem solving and is often combined with silent brainstorming.

Root cause grouping might look like this…

The standard approach that we would use around a fishbone analysis forms part of a facilitated team problem solving approach, using the A3 Thinking method. This is normally completed using post-it notes initially, and is only captured in fishbone diagram at a later stage. The process is as follows:

  • Firstly, have a team silently brainstorm the root causes of a chosen problem statement using the 5 whys approach to ensure depth.
  • Secondly, have the team group their individual root causes into themes.
  • Thirdly, have the team review the grouped thematic areas and, if happy with them, name them. These names then become the major-causes to the identified problem.
  • Fourthly, review the root-causes and major causes, checking them for completeness against an appropriate list of potential major-causes.
  • Finally, progress to the solution design phase.

Major-causes: 3 common groups

It’s important to understand the common major-causes which can affect a specific type of problem. With these in mind it’s possible to check the completeness of the root-causes you’ve identified.

Common major-causes in rocket production may differ from those in, for example, forestry…

For example, if you know that a common major-cause is “people capability” and you’ve identified no root-causes of this nature, you can go back and spend further time identifying appropriate root-causes to your problem.

By doing this you can ensure that you’ve identified all of the appropriate root causes, and are thus in a position to identify a better solution to your problem.

Below, we consider three groups of major-causes that you may wish to use to check your root-causes for completeness. Each group is useful in different circumstances. More groups are available, and you can always create your own group which is appropriate for your specific circumstances.

The PPPS major-causes

PPPC stands for people, process, platform and culture. These are an excellent set of common major-causes to consider for any problem in an office or a professional-services working environment. Most problems in this environment have root causes within all four of these major-causes.

The 5 Ms major-causes

The 5 Ms are: machine, method, material, man and measurement. These major causes are useful for consideration in the manufacturing sector where you would expect to potentially find root-causes in relation to all of them.

The 5 Ps major-causes

The 5 Ps are: product, price, promotion, place, people. These are simply the 5 Ps of marketing (which we’ve yet to write about), converted into potential major-causes. These are appropriate major-causes to consider in relation to a product marketing problem.

The World of Work Project View

Fishbone analysis is a helpful tool. It’s a useful way to visualize, share, track and analyze root causes to a specific problem. The approach of comparing root causes to a list of common major-causes for that kind of problem is also very helpful.

In our view though, the real magic comes from getting the right people in the room and leading an effective root-cause ideation / brainstorming activity. In many ways this is more important than how you visualize the root-causes that you capture.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

In this instance, most of our content has come from our working experience. The original source of this model though is by Kaoru Ishikawa and you can read more in his book: “Introduction to Quality Control“.


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