Cause and Effect Analysis

Cause and Effect Analysis - ToolsHero

This article provides you with a practical explanation of the Cause and Effect Analysis. After reading, you will understand the basics of this powerful problem analysis tool.

What is a Cause and Effect Analysis?

Each organisation has its own problems, big and small. A problem within an organisation can be either a chance to grow, or a setback that leads to failure. Which of the two it ends up being depends on how the problem is solved. An effective method to prevent undesirable outcomes is to conduct a proper analysis of the situation, establish the causes of the problem, and subsequently developing a fitting solution for the situation.

For a Cause and Effect Analysis, the analyst sums up and analyses all the potential causes and effects of the identified problem, after which the analyst generates and sorts through various hypotheses about the problem’s potential causes. The most frequently used methods to process and draw connections between large amounts of information involve the use of cause-and-effect diagrams.

Cause and Effect Analyses enable problem solvers to broaden their minds, and to look at the bigger picture with regards to the problem. Aside from reflecting the causes standing in the way of the desired outcome, cause-and-effect diagrams can also be used to map out the necessary factors for achieving this desired outcome.

Two tools for Cause and Effect Analysis

Fishbone diagram

In the ’60s of the last century, professor Kaoru Ishikawa, a pioneer in the field of quality management, developed his cause and effect analysis. This analysis is also known as the Ishikawa diagram, Ishikawa, or Fishbone diagram. It is called that because of the resemblance of the finished diagram to a fish bone. The diagram was initially used for quality improvement, but soon proved a highly effective problem analysis tool as well, used to analyse the causes of impediments within corporate processes, as well as potential way to improve these processes.

The Cause and Effect Analysis entails two important steps which enable the problem solver to both look back and ahead in time. In looking back, the analysis is geared towards identifying the areas where mistakes were made, or money was lost. This is how the diagram helps understand what happened before. By establishing the causes of the problem, the problem solver is able to work towards swiftly solving, or entirely avoiding, future instances of it.

When looking ahead, the analysis attempts to find workable solutions that can be easily implemented in the future as a means to build upon the success of the organisation.

Fishbone Diagram Steps

The fishbone diagram can be drawn up using the steps below. Or you can download a free fishbone diagram template here and fill it out by following the steps below:

Step 1: Identify the problem

Write down the exact problem situation: Identify who is – or was – involved, what the problem is, where, and when it occurs. Next, briefly summarise the problem on the left side of a large sheet of paper and draw a long horizontal line across the length of the sheet. This setup resembles the head and spine of a fish and ensures that there will be space both on top and on the bottom to develop ideas.

Step 2: Elaborate on the key factors of the problem

Establish which factors likely make up a part of the problem. These might be systems, but also equipment, materials, external parties, or people involved in the problem. A helpful tool to do this, is the McKinsey 7S framework.
Brainstorm about all the potential factors that might influence the situation, drawing a line across the spine of the Fishbone diagram for each one. Label every subsequent line.

Step 3: Identify potential causes

Evaluate each factor from step two for potential causes of the problem that might correlate with these aforementioned factors.
Note down these potential causes as shorter lines coming off of the ‘vertebrae’ of the fish bone. For far-reaching or complex causes, it is possible to subdivide into sub-causes that each have their own causal line.

Step 4: Analyse the diagram

The final step entails an analysis of the entire diagram, containing all the potential causes of the problem. Dependent upon the complexity and the importance or impact of the problem, the most likely causes may warrant closer inspection. This can be done via further research or surveys. Which potential causes actually contribute to the problem can be tested like this.

Five Whys method

The Five Whys method or 5 Whys Analysis also aids in establishing the cause and effect of a problem situation. Whereas the Fishbone diagram can offer solutions to a problem with known causes, the Five Whys method shines in situations where the true cause of a problem is still unclear.

The use of the Five Why’s method is a simple way to solve an established problem without need for a large-scale, highly detailed investigation. The method is also referred to as the Why Tree, and it enables the problem solver to peel back multiple layers of a problem via the repeated asking of the question ‘why?’

This technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and utilised by the Toyota Motor Corporation in the testing of manufacturing methods.

Five Whys Steps with example

Carry out a Five Whys analysis via these five steps:

Step 1: Note down the specific problem

By describing the problem, it can be precisely and comprehensively formulated. In case a specific team is designated to solve the problem, the description will ensure that they are all on the same page, concentrating on the same problem.

Step 2: Ask why

Note down why the problem is occurring right below the description of the issue. Should the answer to this question fail to give a clear enough cause, move on to step 3.

Step 3: Continue asking why

Ask why with regards to the answer of step 2 and write the new answer below it.

Step 4: Repeat step 3 until the cause has been identified

Should there still be a lack of clarity as to the problem’s cause, the question of why needs to continue being asked. The cause might be identified after 2 times, or it might take 8 times.

Tips and Focus areas

  • Utilise the Fishbone diagram to keep the team’s focus on causes instead of symptoms.
  • Utilise the Five Whys method if the true cause isn’t known yet.
  • Keep enough room open between the different categories of the Fishbone diagram for potential adjustments.
  • Consider a brainstorming session to think about the problem and its causes, making the participants put down their thoughts on post-its.
  • Combine the Five Why’s method with the Fishbone diagram to still be able to discern the cause in spite of disappointing initial results.
  • Be careful about premature assumptions with regards to causality. Question whether or not connections can be proven or not.

It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Is the Heuristic Method applicable in your personal or professional environment? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for solving problems

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Feld, W. M. (2002). Lean manufacturing: tools, techniques, and how to use them. CRC Press.
  2. Ishikawa K. & Loftus, J.H. (1990). Introduction to quality control. Tokyo, Japan: 3A Corporation; 1990.
  3. Martin, J. (2006). Lean six sigma for supply chain management. McGraw Hill Professional.

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