Leveraging Ishikawa Diagrams for Effective Project Management in the Technology Sector

By A.J. Merlino, Associate VP of student professional development & Experiential Learning at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

In this article, I explore Ishikawa diagrams and how they can help identify the root cause of common problems in the technology sector and provide steps for your project team to tackle these issues.

So what is an Ishikawa diagram, also known as a fishbone diagram or cause-and-effect diagram?

It is a powerful visual tool used to identify and analyze the root causes of a problem or issue. Created by Kaoru Ishikawa in the 1960s as a quality control tool, this method has a wide range of applications beyond quality control.

In the technology sector, Ishikawa diagrams can identify, and address issues related to software bugs, system crashes, poor performance, and product development among others. By understanding the root causes, strategies can be developed to prevent future problems. These diagrams can also help identify potential barriers to efficient product development, or pinpoint knowledge or skills gaps that may impede the success of a project. Some focus areas might include:

  • Bugs in the code
  • Server crashes
  • Slow system performance
  • Difficulties in user-interface design

Identifying the root cause of a problem with Ishikawa diagrams follows a clear process:

  1. Develop a problem statement: The first step is to identify the primary issue that needs addressing. This could range from a persistent software bug to a challenging user interface design problem. The goal is to identify the effect rather than the associated causes. This problem statement is later placed at the “mouth” of the Ishikawa diagram.
  2. Gathering data: Once the problem statement has been identified, collect as much data as possible related to the problem. This could include error logs, system reports, user feedback, or technical literature about the issue.
  3. Identify major categories: Identify the major categories that may contribute to the problem statement using the data collected. These are typically the “bones” of the fishbone diagram and are larger ideas than specific causes. Categories may include people, processes, policies, or the environment.
  4. Identify underlying causes: Within each major category, brainstorm possible causes that may contribute to the problem. These are the “branches” of the fishbone diagram. Be as specific as possible and use your team’s expertise and experience to generate a comprehensive list of potential causes. Causes may fall into multiple categories, take the form of events, or mistakes, and may be interrelated.
  5. Create the diagram: The Ishikawa diagram can be created using the data gathered in the previous steps. Place the problem statement at the “mouth” of the fishbone, and add your categories to the ends of each “bone.” Once you have organized the categories, insert the causes related to each category as “branches.”
  6. Analyze and prioritize causes: Once your causes are entered in the diagram, analyze, connect, and prioritize them. Consider which causes are most likely to contribute to the problem and which are easiest to address. There are many techniques like 5-Whys, Pareto analysis or a decision matrix to help with this step. To Use 5-Whys, start by clearly defining the problem, then ask “Why?” to identify the immediate cause, often tied to a process failure. Ask “Why?” again about this cause, and repeat until a root cause is identified, typically after five rounds. The key benefit of this method is it emphasizes understanding root causes over treating symptoms, leading to more effective, long-term solutions. Describing the use of all these tools is beyond this article’s scope, but many resources are available via the Project Management Institute.
  7. Test and validate causes: After prioritizing and connecting the potential causes, test and validate them to confirm they may contribute to the problem. You should use the previous data as part of this step, but drill down and connect reports when applicable. Draw correlations to data points when appropriate and provide evidence to support your findings. In this phase, a lack of evidence is as significant as an abundance of evidence, as the former will reveal anecdotal correlations to the problem rather than fact-based connections.
  8. Refine the diagram: Once the analysis is complete and evidence is presented, remove items that do not show fact-based connections to the problem. This analysis can be used to develop solutions to address the problem, allocate resources to effectively address the issue, and select/refine the appropriate project team.
  9. Develop solutions: Based on the analysis of the diagram, a project plan (timeline, scope, deliverables, budget, etc.) can be developed to provide a solution to the root cause of the problem. The solution can be tested and refined until the problem has been adequately addressed, and the project team’s needs can be altered concurrently with this development. If there are multiple root causes, you may use an iterative problem-solving approach. Each iteration of this process should address a root cause, improving a category until they no longer include an issue, consequently solving the problem.
  10. Monitor and measure results: After implementing your plan through each iteration, monitor and measure the results to ensure that the root cause has been effectively addressed, and the problem does not recur.

Examples of Using Ishikawa Diagrams in the Technology Industry:

  1. Software Debugging: Suppose a software application is frequently crashing. An Ishikawa diagram can be used to identify potential causes such as coding errors, insufficient system resources, incompatible software components, or inadequate testing protocols.
  2. Network Troubleshooting: If a company is experiencing persistent network outages, an Ishikawa diagram can help identify the root causes. Possible factors may include hardware failures, software bugs, network congestion, poor infrastructure, or cyber-attacks.
  3. Product Development: Ishikawa diagrams can aid in identifying the root causes of delays or challenges in product development. For instance, if a project is consistently missing its deadlines, potential causes such as ineffective project management, lack of resources, unclear project scope, or communication gaps can be identified.
  4. User Experience (UX) Design: If a product or a service has a high churn rate or receives poor usability scores, an Ishikawa diagram can help identify issues such as complex user interfaces, lack of user guidance, poor performance, or software bugs.
  5. System Performance: Ishikawa diagrams can be used to enhance system performance. For example, if a system is running slower than expected, potential causes such as inefficient algorithms, memory leaks, hardware limitations, or network latency can be explored.

Limitations of Ishikawa Diagrams:

Ishikawa diagrams are a valuable tool but have some limitations. One limitation is that they can be time-consuming to create and difficult to use if the problem is complex. Therefore, Ishikawa diagrams should be used as A tool to solve a problem, not THE tool.

Additional tips for using Ishikawa diagrams in technology project management:

  • Involve all project stakeholders in the development of an Ishikawa diagram. In the context of the technology industry, this may include the project owner, developers, or even end user. This collaboration will help to ensure that all potential causes of problems are identified.
  • Be specific and connect causes when creating the Ishikawa diagram. The more specific you are, the easier it will be to develop an effective project team and plan. If specificity becomes difficult, use the 5-Whys method to aid in this process.
  • Review the Ishikawa diagram regularly and update it as needed. This is an iterative document; regular updates ensure the diagram is accurate and useful. Beyond identifying root causes, this tool is useful in identifying positive behaviors that may be transformational in other departments within a business.

Ishikawa diagrams are highly useful for project managers in the technology sector. They can be used to identify the root causes of issues related to software bugs, system crashes, and product development, among others. Further, this tool can help to identify potential risks and challenges, develop mitigation strategies, improve communication and collaboration, and enable better decision-making. By using Ishikawa diagrams to analyze and address these issues, technology companies can improve their products, enhance their services, and better meet the needs of their customers.

A.J. Merlino is a five-time GRAMMY-nominated music educator with a passion for cultivating creativity and innovation in higher education. His background in the arts as a performer and large-scale project manager helps inform decisions as a business strategist, bringing a unique perspective to the educational landscape. As a touring musician and clinician, he has presented in Scotland, Croatia, Greece, Thailand, Canada, Australia, and Argentina. Dr. Merlino has worked as a project manager, music director, composer, and performer for many projects held at The Venetian, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, and Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. Dr. Merlino’s experience collaborating with campus leadership and community partners has successfully increased students’ educational programming and learning opportunities while positively impacting student enrollment, matriculation, retention, and outcomes through career-level engagement.

A.J. Merlino earned his Bachelor of Arts in Music degree from Kutztown University, Master of Music, and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In addition, he was a 2017, 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023 quarterfinalist for the GRAMMY Foundation’s Music Educator Award for making a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and demonstrating a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools. Dr. Merlino is currently the Associate Vice President for Student Professional Development & Experiential Learning and Associate Professor of Business & Live Entertainment at Harrisburg University, where he is responsible for expanding experiential learning opportunities and developing new programs that improve students’ positive postgraduate outcomes.