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The Power of the Fishbone (Cause-and-Effect) Diagram in Effective Communications

JD Solomon's Communicating with FINESSE fishbone diagram is critical for understanding causal factors that produce effective communication.
The fishbone diagram is one of the seven tools of quality. The Communicating with FINESSE fishbone diagram identifies the seven causes that prodcue effective communication in the face of complexity and uncertainty.

The fishbone diagram is also known as a cause-and-effect diagram or the Ishikawa diagram, after its founder Kaoru Ishikawa. The fishbone diagram identifies the many possible causes (the "bones") that produce an effect or problem (the "head"). It is a powerful tool to use in structured brainstorming sessions or stimulate fresh thinking. It is a core tool in root cause analysis.

Understanding Causation

In quality decision making, context is extremely important when basing the future allocation of resources on the results of events that have happened in the past. That makes the fishbone diagram and other related tools important. Understanding causation can take many forms, require several different approaches, and utilize multiple tools.

One of the simplest tools is the "Five Whys," which mimics an annoying child continually asking why-why-why-why-why-why. However, when performed in a structured (and non-annoying) way, it produces good results for simple to moderately complex events.

Another relatively simple tool is causal factor analysis. Like the detectives on the television show Crime Scene Investigation, causal factor analysis involves developing the sequence of activities surrounding an event. Much understanding is gained by mapping the primary action (such as operating a piece of equipment) on a timeline and other secondary, parallel aspects (such as weather or which employees were on-site) on the same timeline. Causal factor analysis should be used in every root cause analysis.

Causal Factors Drive Outcomes

There are many other tools and approaches, but the result can be boiled down into the fishbone diagram. The primary causes lead to an intended (or unintended) effect or consequences. In the negative event of falling out of a tree and breaking my arm, some of those causes were having the wrong equipment, not planning the job properly, and doing too much. Had I done those three correctly, the positive effect would have been a job well done. The negative effect was a broken arm because those three things were not performed correctly.

The Power of the FINESSE Fishbone Diagram

The Communicating with FINESSE fishbone is like all other fishbone diagrams. When faced with complexity and uncertainty, do those seven bones well and the positive outcome will be effective communication. Not performing any or all of those bones well will produce the negative effect of poor communication.


The illustration "Not Your Ordinary Fishbones" and excerpts from this article are taken from my book, "Communicating Reliability, Risk and Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get Your Boss's Boss to Understand." The second edition is now available on Sign-up for updates at Communicating with FINESSE.

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