Fish Bone Diagrams – Helpful or Not?

I was late for work.  I am always late for work (ask my boss, he will confirm this)

One of the guys I work with told me I need to work out why I am late all the time and fix it before I get the sack.  He suggested I do some Fish-bone analysis and a little process improvement.

Here is the result:

Fish Bone Diagram

At the head it tells me what the issue is.  (You don’t need a real head, I had time on my hands)

The big bones are the key categories, the groups of reasons why I am late.  You draw these first

The little bones tell me all the possible reasons why I am late for work.  You add these later

A work of art, but is it useful.  Will I be on time on Monday?

Well erh.. Yes and No

Yes it helps because drawing it makes me think through all the reasons for being late and it makes me do that in a clear structured way.  Because it is structured I am less likely to miss something

No it doesn’t help because it doesn’t tell me specifically why I am late.  It just gives me a lot of possible reasons why I might be late:

  • I might be late because my alarm clock doesn’t work
  • I might be late because it is always foggy
  • I might be late because I never have enough petrol

But it isn’t an exhaustive list, I could well have missed the real reason

Think of it as a shopping list.  It is sensible to write one before you go to the shops, and structure it somehow, by day or meal or shopping aisle.  That way you are less likely to forget something.

The next job is to test your list of hypotheses.  And if the cause of your problem isn’t on the list and you can prove that, then go back and add more

Fish-bone diagrams provide structure, they don’t provide an answer.  But then, without clear thought and structure, problem solving isn’t problem solving, it is intuition or luck

Just like being able to cook a fabulous meal after going to the shops without a list

By the way, if you like my diagram (complete with head) there is a PowerPoint template you can down-load it here

Fish Bone Diagram

Read another opinion

Image by faceymcface1


  1. Good Post!

    The problem with fishbone diagrams is that it does not show:
    – Interrelations of causes
    – Possible loop backs that reinforce / enlarge causes and results
    – “Size” – e.g. the amount that a cause is responsible for the effect, compared to the other causes.

    It’s the reason I like to use Cause-Effect network diagrams, in which I show causes, relations (with arrows) and amount of relative impact of a cause to an effect. In that way it’s easier to spot the larger causes and see which causes should get focus first.


    • James Lawther says:

      Thank you very much for your thoughts Roeland, I totally agree the trick is to be able to see “relative impact” so you fix the big causes.


  2. From experience there are two major issues with Fishbone diagram:

    1) They don’t express fundamental relationships, so you never know for sure when they are complete. So for example, if you look at the “late for work problem” using the PM analysis approach instead you could say they are only two reasons you are late:

    a) You left too late
    b) Your journey to work took too long.

    Both of these are easy to check against a measurable standard, then you will explore whichever branch comes up as being out of control. You can then go on to expand one, or both of these

    2) Fishbones don’t have a proper hierarchy. Using the PM approach, you can “chop off branches” so that you never need to worry about the 5 million different things that might make you leave later than you should, if in fact you left on time.

    There are several much more powerful approaches than Fishbone that give a similar looking tree, but are based on structured approach. Unfortunately Fishbone Diagrams have offered a hiding place for woolly thinking dressed up as science.

  3. Hello James

    Totally get what you are articulating and fishbones can be useful provided we have the wisdom to ask the right questions. Lets take your example of being late. Allow me to ask the question that you ask but in a very different way:

    First pick someone that you love – deeply LOVE. You got that? Hold that person in mind. Now here is my question: If you knew that this person’s life depended on you arriving on time to work everyday would you arrive on time?

    Let’s look at your situation of being late and ask a related question: what is about you and the environment that you work in which says to you “James, it’s OK to be late!” Put differently, what happens when you are late? Nothing? Nothing significant?

    The power is always in the questions. And it is wisdom of the human condition that allows us to ask the right questions when it comes to human beings. Now when we are talking about more technical questions (like the motion of gases) then we simply need knowledge: knowledge of gases, heat etc.


  4. desyree houston says:

    what did u use to make that

  5. Mahmoud Youssef says:

    Prety good. However, I think you may add another sub-effect under method which is sleeping late at night. I do know that all inputs differ from person to person and it depend on the personnel behaviour.


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