What Is a Fishbone Diagram?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn how to get to the root cause of a problem by creating a fishbone diagram, a powerful project management tool.

[Featured image] A piece of paper shows a fishbone diagram drawn with red, blue, and yellow ink.

A fishbone diagram, also referred to as a cause and effect diagram or an Ishikawa diagram, is a helpful tool for identifying the root cause of a problem. It allows you to list all the potential causes that may be contributing to the effect you are currently experiencing. This visual aid takes the shape of a fishbone, hence its name, and is commonly used during brainstorming sessions.

To create a fishbone diagram, you organize the possible causes on the left side, categorized under different cause categories. These make up the "bones" of the fish. On the right side, you place the effect or problem you are investigating–the "head". This structure provides a quick and easy way to visualize the various causes associated with the effect.

How to create a fishbone diagram

Here's how to construct a fishbone diagram: 

1. Provide a problem statement. 

A problem statement is the effect or problem you are investigating and goes in a box with an arrow pointing to it in the right side of a flipchart page, as if forming the head of the fish. Everyone on the team agrees on the definition of the problem.  

2. Define major cause categories. 

Form the skeleton of your fishbone diagram with the major cause categories, which you connect to the backbone. To find these categories, have a brainstorming session with your team. The number of categories you create will vary according to your industry and the problem you’re solving. As an example, if you work in manufacturing, your major cause categories may be staff/people, equipment and machinery, processes and procedures, materials, environmental factors, and measuring procedures.

3. Brainstorm causes. 

Now that you have your major cause categories in place, take time to brainstorm possible causes. You can use the categories as a way of generating ideas or just list as many causes as you can think of as a team.

4. Categorize causes. 

Go through your list of causes and add them to the appropriate category on your diagram. These causes become the ribs on your diagram, joining categories to the backbone. 

5. Discover sub-causes. 

For each cause you identify, go deeper by asking effective questions such as, “Why does this happen?” This causes layers of branches or “bones” on the diagram. 

6. Identify root causes. 

The final step is to identify the root causes of the effect or problem in the problem statement. To do this, look at the causes that appear most often and across more than one category.

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