People Innovation Excellence

Fishbone Facilitation Reflection

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ISE Magazine – Volume: 49, Number: 07
By Jennifer Otitigbe

Team-based cause-and-effect study can point the way to the real problem
In working on various product development and innovation projects ranging from hardware to software, one challenge is understanding how to harness the knowledge that team members have for understanding complex product or customer-related issues, especially while working with tight product development timelines. Harnessing knowledge implies moving beyond an individual, general understanding to a fuller shared understanding of the issue, observation or problem. This is a critical foundation for successful problem-solving. After experimenting with a variety of approaches, it turns out that a cause-and-effect diagram is just the right tool to meet this challenge.

A fresh look at an old tool
A cause-and-effect diagram, also known as an Ishikawa or a fishbone diagram, is a simple way to brainstorm visually on causes related to an issue, observation, problem or event. This tool can help teams generate a deep and system-level understanding as a foundation for effective solutions. This diagram also serves as a visual way to prioritize, communicate and track how to act on the team’s findings. Cause-and- effect diagrams are just one of many tools used in problem solving and root cause analysis. While these diagrams are not the end-all and be-all, they are easy to create and understand.

Understand the whys
Use a cause-and-effect diagram to find out why something happened as a foundation for good problem-solving. Cause-and-effect diagrams are useful for helping teams understand tricky problems that may affect or cross over several disciplines or functions in your organization.

Laying the groundwork
Once you have the effect generally identified, there are a few things that need to happen to make the team session a success. First, identify the people from different functional areas that would contribute to the problem understanding session. As the facilitator, own the process, not the effect you are trying to resolve.

Preparing for a session
Schedule a collaboration space and invite the problem understanding team to the session. Ensure that you have materials for writing and perhaps a camera to record the output. Organize some information about the effect and send that out in advance, especially if you have invited people who are functional experts but who might be less familiar with the specific issue.

Finding the right cause for that effect

  • These tips can help facilitators guide team-based cause-and-effect studies:
  • Own the process, not the “effect” or consequence you are interested in.
  • Spend time up front planning the details of the session.
  • Ensure team members are on board with the process.
  • Foster equal participation to draw out the most from your team.
  • Make a follow-up plan; do not leave the session open-ended.

Bring the team along
At the beginning of the meeting do a quick summary of the session objectives and plan. Lay out some ground rules about effective team communication and the importance of staying in the problem understanding space versus advancing rapidly or immediately to the solution space. Assemble the team around and explain the process to them. Place effects, then arrange the starter categories. Ask the team whether they agree with the effect or how it is described. You may need to modify the effect statement. Then ask your team if they agree with all the categories.

As you and the team members work through the details, participants may decide to add, remove or modify some categories. Next, ask the team which category they would like to focus on first. Encourage the team to brainstorm on causes related to this category and add this to the diagram. We will call these the first-level causes. Next, for each of these first-level causes ask “why” and keep asking “why” until the team members have exhausted their ideas. Then move on to the second category, rinse and repeat.

When the diagram is filled out, encourage everyone to look at it again. Are there categories that are missing or that don’t need to be there? Before you decide to remove a category, consider that an empty category may mean that the team needs to search for information in this area. Depending on the situation, you may have one of two next steps:

  • Gather more information.
  • Prioritize the causes.

Maximize the output
After you have identified what additional information is needed and prioritized how to address the findings, settle as a team on key follow-up actions. Identify owners for each follow-up action. In some cases, you may need to share this diagram with other people. The key point here is to demonstrate the value of the team’s work by showing how these findings will be used. Facilitating a cause-and-effect diagramming exercise with a cross-functional team carries several benefits:

  • The process is flexible and lightweight.
  • Visual ideas and concepts stick.
  • Collaborative exercises harness the knowledge of teams.
  • The process saves time searching for information to help understand problems.
  • The process contributes to a collective and system-level understanding of an issue.
  • The process builds a strong foundation for problem-solving.

Over the years, a cause-and-effect diagram has been an important tool in many product development team facilitation toolkits, especially for helping teams develop a collective understanding of a complex issue, observation, problem or event.


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