Tag Archives: Problem statement

5 Ways to Keep Your Fishbone From Stinking

Do you have a tough problem you are trying to solve? Consider conducting a root cause analysis using a Fishbone Diagram. Here are five tips that can keep your analysis from stinking:

1. Have a sharp problem statement

Get this wrong and you’re wasting your time. Focus on one specific, observable problem. Think about ways you could measure the impact of correcting your problem statement. If the problem is measurable, there’s a good chance that you have a problem statement that is ready to be analyzed.

2. Find the right people

A former manager of mine use to say “availability is not a skill.” Get participants who will have the context and experience to generate quality insights. Make sure you get a diverse group of participants that will view the problem statements from a variety of perspectives.

3. Make time for it

Like so many things in life, the objective is not to rush through the activity. Schedule enough time whereby participants do not feel rushed. Do the analysis in one contiguous block of time. Make sure that participants are giving their full attention to the matter at hand, and that they are not disengaging either physically or mentally.2

4. Make it Visible

Be vigilant for conversation that is not captured in writing. A team can easily get into a dialog about the problem’s causes and forget to capture insights that are mentioned. Don’t let potential causes get missed. Make sure that all the participants have a pen and encourage them to write their observations on the diagram. If you hear a cause mentioned that isn’t captured, stop the conversation, get it written, and then go on with the analysis.

5. Get a Facilitator

Last but not least! Find a neutral party that has facilitation skills that can engage with your team. A facilitator will be focused on the mechanics of the activity, allowing participants to immerse themselves in the actual problem that they are trying to solve. A facilitator is instrumental in helping bring out the voice of all the participants, and can guard against the conversation going down paths that are not focused on the stated problem.


Using a Fishbone Diagram to visualize a root cause analysis session can yield powerful insights. Give your efforts the best chance of success by setting it up with a solid problem statement, and investing in facilitation to shepherd the team through the analysis.

Please share your thoughts on what helps or hinders the effectiveness of a root cause analysis.

Additional Information

1. A Fishbone diagram is the result of an analysis in which a team of individuals articulates possible causes of a specific problem statement, and then enumerates the possible causes of that cause. The individuals involved continue to do this activity recursively until they identify candidate root causes. The visual that results from this analysis will take on a fish-like shape.
2. Esther Derby and Diane Larson have some ideas on how to “Check In” in their book Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. The book is definitely worth buying. Make sure people check their distractions at the door, and that you have the attention required for the activity.