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Fishbone Diagram

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Fishbone Diagram

  • Course: Thinking Lean
  • Module: Lean Tools
  • Lesson Type: Video
  • Lesson Duration: 7:57

Lesson Content

When Analyzing a process or problem, we need to use another set of tools. One of which is a fishbone diagram. Have you ever had a problem when the solution seemed so straight forward you go ahead, spend all this time and energy implementing it to find out it wasn’t the answer?! You thought you were fixing the problem but you didn’t actually identify the real cause. There’s something else or maybe there are multiple causes.

The Fishbone Diagram allows you to dig deep into the problem by identifying ALL possible causes.

A fishbone diagram helps you find and categorize all the reasons for a serious problem with one of your processes. Understanding what the problem is and why you have a problem is key before developing a solution.

It’s also referred to as an Ishikawa Diagram having been developed by Professor Ishikawa and published in 1990.

The fishbone diagram gives you a very structured process to analyzing a problem. You start by writing the problem in the form of a question.

Why is this occurring? What is causing this to occur?

Then you identify five to six categories or possible causes of the problem. Here’s a set of generic categories that many teams begin with, People, Materials, Process, Environment, Equipment and Management. Each of these is some how involved in everything we do. Each category gives you an idea of what could be causing the problem in a very broad sense. Let’s review what each one means.

People can represent anyone involved in the process…managers, employees, external customers, sr. leaders.

Materials could include the product you developed and delivered along with what you used to build the product.

Process represents how the work is done. What activities take place to have a finished product?

Environment focuses on the condition in which the process took place and the product had to be delivered.

Equipment includes anything used to complete the process.

And management refers to how the process was administered or managed. Notice what we now have looks just like a fishbone.

In my experience, I didn’t always fill out every category and sometimes you’ll notice a slight variation in the categories themselves. For example, instead of Process I used Methods or instead of Management I used Measurement. Bottom line, you want to take the time to think through what could be the major areas of concern. Anything that may be causing the problem. Let’s take a quick look at an example.

How about the performance management process? Here’s the scenario. You’re an HR Manager for a small to mid sized company. Each year, your employees complete an extensive performance review. However, it is questionable whether or not they are receiving continuous feedback. The organization uses an online assessment tool which is about 10 years old. Senior Leaders are supportive of the process but they take a long time to complete their own direct report reviews. As the HR Manager, you have access to every tool function and when running a report, you notice employees simply aren’t completing their reviews.

So the question is, Why don’t employees complete their reviews?

The Fishbone Diagram is a great way to capture and categorize our conversation. Picture yourself meeting with senior leaders to discuss the problem.

At the beginning of the meeting you write the problem in the form of a question. Then you label all the factors that may be causing the problem. People, Materials, Process, Environment, Equipment and Management. For each of the major factors, we want to brainstorm and write causes along the arrows.

People is a good place to start. We know employees are involved, but this tool pushes you to move past your assumptions about employees being the cause. There are other people guiding and completing this process such as managers, HR and senior leaders.

Next, Materials. For this process, what materials are necessary for completion? It could be paper or digital. The materials in this case are an employee self evaluation, management assessment, comments, ratings and signatures. Ultimately, we need a signed review.

Next, the process. How is the work getting done? Is the team following a series of steps? Is there a timeline? Are there instructions? Were a few reminders sent out? Now we’re getting somewhere.

Moving on to Environment. It’s the end of the year, what else may be happening? In our case it’s December! This is a tough time of year for many organizations. Plus a new product line was being launched. And it’s a once a year occurrence…this could be having an impact on how seriously it’s being taken.

Equipment, the tools your employees currently use include a self service application with an electronic evaluation form. You learn from the team that the tool is not intuitive and may even be outdated.

And finally, management. In this case, management includes the application’s reporting capability, HR, your managers and senior leaders.

This now gives you a much better picture of all the potential answers to the original question, why don’t employees complete their reviews? Notice how we’ve identified possible reasons other than our original assumption. For example, under process, only a few reminders were sent out and under environment, the organization was trying to complete the reviews in December during a new product line launch. Clearly, there are several causes to the problem question, why don’t employees complete their reviews?

During your discussion with managers, you may have some disagreement about which category an item belongs in. Some could be listed under one or more. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is the use of the tool to guide the discussion and identify every single area in which there could be a problem.

As a group you need to take a step back and decide if any of these category items really stand out. Instead of assuming your employees just didn’t want to sign their reviews, you have much more to go on.

The Fishbone Diagram allows you to investigate all possible causes instead of just making assumptions. At the end of the day, by knowing the real issues, you can make the right decisions and develop a more effective and efficient process.

Christina Danforth


Christina Danforth

Christina A. Danforth, SHRM-SCP & SPHR, launched HR Jetpack in 2016 to support the development and professional growth of her fellow HR colleagues. She started her HR career in 2002....

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