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How to Use a Fishbone Diagram

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Have you or your team ever had a problem you could not get to the bottom of? Identifying root causes can seem like a daunting task, particularly in a team setting. However, research shows that people generate 37% more ideas when they work as a team, compared to when they work alone. Working within a structure can make root cause analysis run much more smoothly. A cause and effect diagram, sometimes referred to as Ishikawa Diagram after its creator, Kaoru Ishikawa, is a structured team process that assists in identifying underlying factors or causes of variation within a specific event. Simply, it is brainstorming in a structured format. Together, your team can utilize this simple diagram to tackle your toughest problems.


The Fishbone diagram can be applied:

  • To analyze and find the root cause of a complex problem
  • When there are several possible causes for a problem
  • When the problem is highly complicated and the team cannot identify the root cause

Fishbone’s purpose is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the problem you want to address before jumping into a solution. Therefore, it is important to work collectively with some expected norms in mind. Use these tried and tested tips and norms to running your first successful fishbone process:

  • Avoid “Solutionitis” the goal is to understand the issue, not solve it (yet)
  • “Yes and” meaning to attempt to always add to a cause, as the goal is to generate lots of ideas, and not fixate on one
  • Embrace “definitely incomplete; possibly incorrect” as you may not always find every cause right away – keep an open mind about returning to your fishbone and adding on new possibilities. You may not always be on point, be open to possibly being incorrect in your assessments of a problem
  • Share the air

If you find there are several complicated issues your team must address, complete a separate Fishbone for each! Learning the tool is the first step.

As suggested in the word “Fishbone”, these diagrams are structured in this manner:

Fishbone Diagram Template

The next steps, provided by the High Tech High GSE Center for Research on Equity and Innovation, give guidance on how to get started on completing your team’s Fishbone diagram.

Step-By-Step Actions

Generate your problem statement.

  • Individual: What is the problem we need to solve? See if you can express the problem in one sentence.
  • Share problem statements.
  • Choose one or create a new one (without getting hung up on the perfect wording). Write your group’s problem statement at the “head” of your fishbone diagram.

Initiate brainstorm of causes.

  • Based on your work digging into the problem and your own ideas/experiences, individually brainstorm as many causes as you can that might contribute to the problem/issue. Write each cause on a different post-it.

Share and categorize.

  • Share: Each person shares one cause contributing to the problem. If others have a similar cause, you can start to group those post-its together on your poster.
  • Continue to share your initial brainstorm, building on each other’s ideas and adding new causes that may contribute to the problem.
  • Cluster: Group related causes together, and give each category a title. (The stuff on the post-its are the details/bones on the fish).

Post and reflect.

  • Post your poster to the wall. Does your diagram capture the root causes you think are important? Anything missing? Then each person gets to vote with one heart and one star.
    • Heart: This is a high leverage cause. Put a heart by the factor, that if addressed, you think would have a significant impact on the problem.
    • Star: is a practical cause. Put a star by the factor that is within your control, that your team could address with little effort.


  • Ask: How did we do upholding the norms? How might we adjust this protocol in the future?

Tackle problems one by one.

When working on your Fishbone, you may find that there could be several problems related to your project that need to be addressed, but do not attempt to answer them all using one diagram. Give each problem its own diagram to reach individual root causes.