Can a fishbone diagram help your group?

One way to assist your group in getting organized.

Basic fishbone diagram demonstrating the cause and effect of blurry photos.
Basic fishbone diagram demonstrating the cause and effect of blurry photos.

The basic concept of a “fishbone diagram” was first used in the 1920s. It is known as a fishbone diagram because of its shape, similar to the side view of a fish skeleton. Also known as a Ishikawa diagram, it was popularized in the 1960s by Kaoru Ishikawa. Kaoru pioneered quality management processes in the Kawasaki shipyards and, in the process, became one of the founding fathers of modern management. Ishikawa diagrams, also called fishbone diagrams, herringbone diagrams, cause-and-effect diagrams, or Fishikawa, are causal diagrams that show the causes of a specific event.

A facilitator might use a fishbone diagram to help a group of people organize and view material that might otherwise be lost. Being able to see the cause and effect graphically enhances the understanding of a particular issue and encourages groups not to overlook factors that impact a problem or goal. It allows people to understand more fully an entire operation, as well as identify and acknowledge factors that may be taken for granted. It becomes valuable data for the group.

The best situation to use a fishbone diagram is when a group facilitator needs to show a cause-and-effect relationship, generally for one of the following two outcomes:

  • To identify what is needed to achieve a certain goal or desired outcome
  • To identify the possible causes of a problem

One way to effectively facilitate using the fishbone is to give the group time to brainstorm quietly and to jot down their ideas. Then, facilitate a discussion of what the major categories might be. After these have been decided and written on the dia­gram, give each person a writing utensil and have everyone write his or her ideas where they belong. Ask them to read others’ ideas for a particular category first and try not to duplicate ideas. When everyone has finished, ask people to read all the contributions to the diagram. Then, facilitate a discussion to help the group summarize what they see, fill in categories with only a few ideas, and decide what actions to take next. Generally, a completed fish­bone diagram will illustrate which categories or subcategories need attention.

The fishbone diagram can be used to initiate and structure a brain­storming activity or it can be used following a brainstorming activity to organize the ideas generated. It can also be used following the creation of an affinity diagram. The fishbone diagram becomes a way to further organize and present the data.

The Michigan State University Extension Leadership and Community Engagement team offers professional development training, including volunteer board development, communicating through conflict, meeting management and facilitation skills development

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