A Fishbone Diagram for Cause and Effect: Tricks of the Trade

​After a good session of SimplyLooking™ and mapping you need to digest. To ensure you consider every possible cause, make it visual; start with The Fishbone, or Cause and Effect Diagram.

A Fishbone or Cause and Effect Diagram traces all influences that lead to a particular result: People, Processes, Inputs, Tools, Culture, Measures and Environment. At one end you draw the head of a fish. Inside it you write the effect you want to understand, usually a problem or and unwanted effect.

Then add a fish skeleton, where each of the influences are included AS NEEDED, there is no hard and fast rule, which is what makes it so flexible and useful. 

Here's the chart from the thumbnail above:

fishbone chart for cause and effect

It was one I did in the first few days of working with a client, to understand why they had so much disharmony.

Here is one I did with a client to solve a problem

A fishbone chart of a cayenne problem
There are some problems with the configuration of the opt-in shortcode

You can't really get a feel for how well they work unless you do one. Three simple steps.

  • Draw a straight line like a spine with a head of a fish at one end. In the head of the fish put the undesired result.
  • Draw as many diagonal lines as you need, like ribs, one for each resource in the project, or influence. The standard ones are:
    1. People
    2. Processes
    3. Raw Material
    4. Tools
    5. Machines
    6. Measures
    7. Environment
    8. Culture
    9. some add
      • Customers
      • Stakeholders
      • and whatever else they may need depending on the unwanted result
  • Brainstorm and write down all the things within the categories that contribute to the unwanted effect: the mini-causes, so you can look at them visually and figure out the big cause: the Root Cause. (If it isn't obvious, use the 5 whys technique.)


Created by Jordi Cabré, the former head of Quality for IBM Spain and available for download for PC and Mac versions that support macros for only two sawbucks.

Anything Fishy in Your Work Life? Do a Fishbone and Share!

Alas, information alone is not learning. You have to do and get and give feedback to learn. Otherwise it's like a day dream, satisfies in the moment but isn't there when you really need it. So, take the first step towards really learning this idea: We are here for you! Think of an unwanted effect in your current working life and DO A FISHBONE, by hand or with software is OK, then post it as an image in the comments section below (Disqus). We will give feedback. Sharing challenges makes them easier. If concerned about sharing, invent a made up user name. It's OK!

About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.