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Fishbone Diagram in Project Management Research Paper

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Updated: May 6th, 2022


A fishbone diagram (FD) is an important tool used to conduct a cause-and-effect analysis during project management to determine the possible solutions for an identified problem. Though, as a project management tool, it is simple, FD is effective and allows an individual to understand the root causes of certain issues during the implementation of projects. FD is also known as an Ishikawa diagram or a cause-and-effect diagram. The credit of designing the framework and introducing it to the contemporary quality management area belongs to Professor Kaoru Ishikawa, who made a range of breakthroughs in quality management in the 1960s. The name “fishbone” comes from the shape of the completed diagram after conducting a cause and effect analysis; the diagram appears like a fish skeleton. FD helps project managers to understand the causes and effects of performance-related problems by providing a visualization of the processes involved in the project. Nevertheless, FDs are widely used as a tool for decision-making and the improvement of quality rates in the performance of the organization or a particular team of experts.

How the Fishbone Tool Helps in Project Management

FD is useful in brainstorming the issues that cause specific complications during project management. Exploring all the factors that cause serious problems in projects helps in determining the available solutions and identifying them as either adequate or lacking efficacy (Andler, 2012). Project managers recommend such approaches because they help in producing a holistic solution to the problem rather than solving a small portion of the identified issue. Consequently, FDs help in preventing recurrent problems while implementing or managing projects through the development and sustenance of corrective actions against system failures. Project managers often use the 5 Why’s tool in conjunction with FD to identify root causes of problems during the project management. The use of FD involves a combination of brainstorming and mind mapping to evaluate all the potential causative factors of problems rather than limiting the analysis to the most obvious factors.

Creation of the Fishbone Diagram

The design of FD involves six major steps:

  • drawing a problem statement;
  • drawing the primary cause categories;
  • brainstorming the potential causes;
  • categorizing the causes;
  • determining the deeper causes;
  • identifying the root causes.

Drawing a Problem Statement

Identifying and defining a problem is undoubtedly the first and the most important step in producing the appropriate solution. It is vital to define the issue properly and completely before seeking consensus among the individuals who will participate in generating the solution. The clarity of the problem statement increases after details such as the nature of the problem, where and when it occurs, and the entities involved are elaborated. The problem statement should be written in a box drawn on the right-hand side of the Ishikawa diagram once every participant has agreed to it. A horizontal line should be drawn from the box so that the arrangement represents the fish’s head and backbone (Zhu, 2011).

Drawing the Primary Cause Categories

The second step of producing FD is identifying the major factors that may cause the problem indicated in the problem statement. The major cause categories are connected to the left-hand side of the “backbone” as fishbones converging to the spine. Each fishbone represents a primary cause category and should be labeled appropriately using various approaches that include the generic cause categories, process, or function approaches. For instance, the labeling can be grouped into the environment, the material, machines, method, procedures, policies, or people. However, the labeling should be made in a manner that is relevant to the problem statement or project.

Brainstorming the Potential Causes

Brainstorming the potential causes of an identified problem accounts for the greatest effort involved in creating FD. A successful brainstorming session should identify the events or conditions that result in a risk (Kendrick, 2015). Brainstorming requires the use of various models such as 4Ps or 7S frameworks to generate ideas on the potential causative factors. The possible causes can be shown on FD as short horizontal lines arising from the fishbones. Moreover, the causes can be subdivided into sub-causes in instances where they are too complex or large (Larson & Larson, 2012). Information on the potential causes can also be derived from the recorded data in check sheets or findings in studies. It is crucial to make the brainstorming comprehensive; thus, all possible causes can be incorporated into the framework for the further analysis.

Categorizing the Causes

The next step is placing all the identified potential causes under the appropriate categories on FD. It is important to point out that some of the causes may fall under multiple categories in FD, although it is recommended that a cause should fall into one group.

Determining the Deeper Causes

The determining of the deeper underlying causes involves making inquiries on the fundamental nature of the causative factors, and this may involve the use of the 5 Why’s framework. Deeper evaluation of the causes ceases when the project managers control the identified factors.

Identifying the Root Causes

The project managers use various approaches during the identification of the root causes when creating FD. One of the methods used is making selections according to the frequency of occurrence. Another strategy used is adopting the consensus method to make choices.

Advantages of Using the Fishbone Diagram

The key benefit of FD is that it assists project managers in discovering the root causes of problems in processes and systems during project implementation. FD is also useful in uncovering the bottlenecks that prevent the successful execution of projects and determining the appropriate corrective actions. Project managers use FDs in identifying why, where, and when a process is not working according to their expectations. As Zhu (2011) argues, FDs are useful in the synthesis and integration of meaningless bits of information to determine the relationships between issues and their causative factors. Lastly, FDs are easy to construct and to use.

Application of the Fishbone Diagram in Project Management

Seeing that FD is also well known under the name of a Cause-and-Effect Diagram, its primary purpose is to locate the factors that affected a specific object or situation. In other words, FD is used whenever there is a need to determine the causation of a particular phenomenon. Although, originally, it was designed as a quality improvement tool, the area of its use has been expanded to exploring the opportunities and options for managing a specific problem. In other words, whenever there is a necessity to locate the root cause of an issue, e.g., the causes of a significant drop in the quality of the company staff’s performance, one should consider the use of the Ishikawa Diagram.


Project managers frequently use FDs during project management because the tool enables them to present visual representations of possible causative factors of problems in their projects. The creation of the FD involves six systematic steps that begin with the identification of the problem statement and end with the identification of the root causes. FDs ease the process of determining the root causes of problems in projects, which allows the project managers to focus on corrective actions. FD is also a flexible project management tool that can be used with numerous frameworks such as the 5 Whys, 4Ps, and 7S.

Reference List

Andler, N. (2012). Tools for project management, workshops and consulting: A Must-have compendium of essential tools and techniques. Erlangen: PUBLICIS.

Kendrick, T. (2015). Identifying and managing project risk: Essential tools for failure-proofing your project. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

Larson, E., & Larson, R. (2012). The influencing formula. Minneapolis: Watermark Learning.

Zhu, M. (2011). Information and management engineering: International conference, ICCIC, Wuhan, China, September 17-18, 2011: Proceedings. Berlin: Springer.

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