The Cause and Effect (a.k.a. Fishbone) Diagram

When utilizing a team approach to problem solving, there are often many opinions as to the problem’s root cause. One way to capture these different ideas and stimulate the team’s brainstorming on root causes is the cause and effect diagram, commonly called a fishbone. The fishbone will help to visually display the many potential causes for a specific problem or effect. It is particularly useful in a group setting and for situations in which little quantitative data is available for analysis.

The fishbone has an ancillary benefit as well. Because people by nature often like to get right to determining what to do about a problem, this can help bring out a more thorough exploration of the issues behind the problem – which will lead to a more robust solution.

To construct a fishbone, start with stating the problem in the form of a question, such as “Why is the help desk’s abandon rate so high?” Framing it as a “why” question will help in brainstorming, as each root cause idea should answer the question. The team should agree on the statement of the problem and then place this question in a box at the “head” of the fishbone.

The rest of the fishbone then consists of one line drawn across the page, attached to the problem statement, and several lines, or “bones,” coming out vertically from the main line. These branches are labeled with different categories. The categories you use are up to you to decide. There are a few standard choices:

Handpicked Content:   Determine the Root Cause: 5 Whys

Table 1: Fishbone Suggested Categories

Service Industries
(The 4 Ps)
Manufacturing Industries
(The 6 Ms)
Process Steps
(for example)
  • Machines
  • Methods
  • Materials
  • Measurements
  • Mother Nature
  • Manpower
  • Determine Customers
  • Advertise Product
  • Incent Purchase
  • Sell Product
  • Ship Product
  • Provide Upgrade

You should feel free to modify the categories for your project and subject matter.

Once you have the branches labeled, begin brainstorming possible causes and attach them to the appropriate branches. For each cause identified, continue to ask “why does that happen?” and attach that information as another bone of the category branch. This will help get you to the true drivers of a problem.

Fishbone Diagram Example

Once you have the fishbone completed, you are well on your way to understanding the root causes of your problem. It would be advisable to have your team prioritize in some manner the key causes identified on the fishbone. If necessary, you may also want to validate these prioritized few causes with a larger audience.

The following fishbone templates are for immediate download and use. There are two versions: Microsoft Word and Excel.

Microsoft Word Fishbone Template
Fishbone Template, Microsoft Word (.DOC)

Fishbone Template Microsoft Excel
Fishbone Template, Microsoft Excel (.XLS)

Viewing Tip: Usually, you can click on the icon link above to view the document in a new window – it may open within your browser using the application (in this case either Word or Excel). If you are having difficulty, try right clicking the link and selecting “Save Target As…” or “Save As…” to save it to your computer harddrive.

Comments 21

  1. pikesway

    Here is another version of a fishbone template where you only have to fill out a table of information and the diagram populates itself.

  2. Nitin Malhotra

    nice article indeed. short & sharp. templates are good too but I think mindmaps are really best drawn in mindmap or visio (or powerpoint).

    Nitin Malhotra

  3. Steve Wilheir

    I’ve never tried using mindmapping software for root cause analysis. Is there a good reference on that?

  4. Rose

    A good program for making charts/mindmaps etc is Xmind. It has the option of making a fishbone diagram and is very easy to use

  5. Michelle

    Good summary of the fishbone diagram; I particularly like you adding the cause and why branches. I real “ah-ha” moment for me!

  6. LAN

    Good Aritcle. short and Clear. Thanks for this good artcle.

  7. Austin

    thank you for your work and material.

    really a wonderful work

    Austin, Tanzania

  8. Lilly

    Excellent article. I will be facing many of these issues as well.

  9. Chitta

    This is really very useful though it’s a short note.

  10. Lázaro

    My favorite software for constructing a fishbone is QUALITY COMPANION (MINITAB)

  11. Luis Valencia

    Congratulations. Those tolos are very important in determining the causes and effects to solve problems inherent in processes. Thanks.

  12. Gerrie

    Thanks for the fishbone chart. I used it alot when I worked in management for dialysis. I am glad that you shared it with me.

  13. Ahmad Ali

    A very good article, specially clearly mentioning groups for service and other categories. It is the new trend in quality control. No doubt this technique is very effective to remove assignable causes from the process.

  14. Theophilus Kportufe

    This very helpful

  15. Mike

    First saw this at Dell. They use this method to help explain why they select inferior vendors and don’t test. You get what you inspect not what you expect.

  16. Arnaldo dos Santos Júnior

    I liked this very much but wy don’t you mentioned Ishikawa. A.k.a fishbone but firts a.k.a Ishikawa I think.

  17. Kelz

    Thanks for this brief but insightful write-up.

  18. Nicola

    A great explanation and introduction to the “fishbone” cause and effect diagram, thank you!

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