The fishbone analysis tool is a visual method used to help capture and understand various things including the root causes to a problem. Completed diagrams look like a fish skeleton.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Fishbone Analysis

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

A diagram showing The Fishbone Analysis Tool

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). 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.

People sorting post-it notes, which often happens with The Fishbone Analysis Tool
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.

Want to be a better manager?


Every year we run an open cohort of our Connected Management programme for those working in small organisations or organisations that are not able to fund personal and professional development. The 10 session programme is £1100 per person with discounts of up to 40% for self-funders and non-profits.

In 2024, we have a cohort on Wednesday 3.30pm UK time and Thursdays 9am UK time from April 17/18. It comprises 10 online live workshops with two great facilitators and access to a bank of support materials. Learn more about the programme by clicking below.

Learning More

Thinking about what we do from different perspectives and with others is very helpful for decision making. Tools like the reframing matrix process or hackathons can help us do this.

Part of the reason we’re not great at problem solving is that we all have thinking habits and cognitive biases that restrict our creativity. In particular, these decision making biases often lead us towards bad (or irrational) decisions. And sometimes we make decisions just because ISLAGIATT

Similarly, Drilling into issues with the 5 Whys helps us understand root causes more and creating an ease/benefit matrix helps us decide what to focus on in the first place. When we are actually working on things like this in groups it’s useful to use techniques like silent brainstorming to get the best results.

To learn more about creativity, innovation and problem solving, you might enjoy the third of our three podcasts specifically on these topics. It focuses mainly on cognitive processes:

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.

Our Podcast

Our Podcast is a great way to learn more about hundreds of fascinating topics from around the world of work.

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”.

We’re a small organization who know we make mistakes and want to improve them. Please contact us with any feedback you have on this post. We’ll usually reply within 72 hours.