man writing on white boardThe beating heart of Process Improvement is identifying and eliminating waste. Waste comes in 1 of 8 forms, and its visibility can range from blatantly obvious to systemically ingrained and challenging to pinpoint.

Isolating those ingrained wastes—which is how the real money bleeds away—requires buy-in from the entire team. The low-hanging fruit is easy to grab, but those systemic waste problems are way harder to round up.

So, how can you tackle processes that you can’t articulate?

Turns out, there’s a tool for that.


Fishbone Diagrams

Like so many Lean methods, this quality analysis tool was invented in Japan by Kaoru Ishikawa, who managed Kawasaki shipyards’ processes in the 1960s. The intent is to visualize the possible causes of the waste to find bottlenecks in your processes and identify the root cause of why a process isn’t working. 


When to Use the Fishbone 

You don’t need a fishbone with simple fixes. But when a team member identifies a source of waste and you can’t readily trace back through the process to root it out, fishbones become your best friend.

Don’t bother with the fishbone if you’re just starting down the Process Improvement path. First, handle the obvious stuff. 

As your organization gets more efficient, focus on pinpointing the systemic wastes that really drain your profit. These are the wasteful processes that have been baked into your everyday work life for years or decades, so much that they’ve become invisible. It takes discipline, and it takes perseverance. 


How to Use It

fishbone diagram

Start with an identified waste that you don’t know how to fix permanently. Don’t settle for fast fixes that fall apart: you want to build your bottom line with a deep-diving process change.

Bring the relevant stakeholders into the room. Draw the waste at the right-hand center of a large whiteboard or piece of paper. That’s the fish’s head: your objective.

Draw a line back from it for the “spine,” and several “ribs” coming out over and below, angled away from the head. Each rib is a category of processes. One may deal with transportation, one with materials, one with personnel, etc. 

Begin brainstorming all the possible causes of the waste. Write each down under its appropriate category and build sub-categories if you need them. A whiteboard is best because – if you are doing it right – your diagram gets messy. 

Some things may fall under multiple categories. That’s fine. You’re not having a neatness contest; you’re trying to save money.

Ask “why” over and over again. Peeling back all the layers will help you see how possible causes of waste overlap with each other. Find the connections, both in what should connect and in what is connecting but shouldn’t. 


completed fishbone diagram

A fishbone diagram of defects in a manufacturing plant.


Putting the Fishbone to Work

Think of building a fishbone as building a process map, with the difference being that you’re lasered-in on where the process might be breaking down.

Stand back and read your scribbled handiwork. Which potential problems come up multiple times? Which ones stick out to you? Which issues are so bad that they’ve started sprouting other problems?


Fishbones aren’t a silver bullet, but they are a fast way to visualize where your systemic waste might be coming from. From there, how you move forward and how much money you save in that process depends on how committed you are to being brutal with waste.