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4 Tips To Increase The Effectiveness Of Your Next Cause & Effect Diagram

By Craig Tickel | March 17, 2016 | Application Tips, Featured, Using Lean Six

The Cause & Effect Diagram is a popular tool and it appears in most continuous
improvement projects. But in reviewing the project examples and publications, I am
amazed at how many different ways this tool is utilized.
No one can say there is only one correct way to use any tool, although certainly some
approaches are more useful than others. For me, the test of any tools usage is does it
provide the user with information about the current system.
Does it provide the user with information about the current system?
Lets start with a definition of what this tool is. A Cause & Effect Diagram is a visual tool
that aids in identifying the sources of variation within a process. The graphical layout is
easily identifiable, often referred to as a fishbone diagram or the Ishikawa diagram. It
has the effect labeled in the right hand box and is connected with branches or bones
on which causes are listed.
The steps to create this diagram are typically listed as:

Document the effect

Label the branches/bones
Brainstorm for potential causes and add them to the branches
Identify the most significant/probable cause(s)

While accurate in what you do, they dont provide much assistance in how to do this.
Here are four ways the Cause & Effect Diagram (C&E Diagram) can provide more

Label the cause bones with categories that are process specific
Document the effect to show process variability, not the defect condition
Use causal wording that is measurable or quantifiable
See/visualize the correlation of the causes to the effect

1. Label the causal bones with categories that are

process specific.
The diagram is typically shown with six branches and labeled with the six generic causal
categories. Sometime these generic categories are referenced as 6Ms or 4Ms, a P and
an E (as Manpower is relabeled as People, and Mother Earth is relabeled as
Environment). Certainly, these typical settings are logical in that they represent the
categories of variation that exist for any process. But their use is not mandated. Both
the number of legs and the labels can and should be modified to fit the process under

In working with a variety of processes, I find that these typical settings can be limiting to
the improvement team.
In transactional processes, for example, sometimes Machine can be difficult to
understand. Changing the branch name to Computer Software, System, or even the
specific application name can aid in understanding and identifying the variation.

Eliminating the People label and replacing it with multiple branches, each with specific
job functions, such as Operator or Design Engineer, can provide more clarity and
Eliminating the People label and replacing it with multiple branches, each with specific
job functions, such as Operator or Design Engineer, can provide more clarity and
Similarly, Materials may be better served by relabeling or adding more branches for
specific process materials.
Methods may be better understood as Standard Operating Procedures or other
forms of process documentation.
Finally, I find that teams may not clearly understand the Environment or
Measurement branches. Environment is typically interpreted as the physical
environment, which may have little or no impact on the listed effect. Opening the branch
to include the political or emotional environment can be useful; however, it remains
process dependent.
Measurement variation is many times overlooked in process analysis and can be
significant. Spending time with the team to discuss the definitions to these branches can
be useful in identifying the sources of variation they hold, but I must admit that space on
a single page C&E diagram can be a limitation. On occasion, combining these into a
single branch labeled as Other has seemed the best solution for the team.
Historically, C&E diagrams were hand drawn. With the advance of graphical software
applications, many diagrams are now electronically formatted. Limiting a cause & effect
diagram to a single piece of paper is an unnecessary constraint. Expanding the diagram
to multiple pages can allow the number of branches to be expanded and thereby
increase the analytical value of the tool.
How often is this currently practiced? When is the last time you saw a two-paged C&E
diagram or one with more than six branches?
Expanding to multiple pages allows more space so that multiple causescan to be

I have watched a team waste time during brainstorming the initial creation of this tool by
debating which category a given cause should be placed. Given the goal of this tool is
to identify causes of variation, rather than debate the issue, label it in any, both, or all
locations and later use data to determine which category is really appropriate.
Expanding to multiple pages allows more space so that multiple causescan to be

2. Document the effect to show process variability, not

the defect condition.
In almost all of the cause & effect diagrams I see, the effect is labelled with
the defect condition from a single process event.
When cycle time too long is the listed effect, the mental picture I have is a condition
from one end of the distribution, rather than the variation of the total distribution.

Labeling the effect

Figure 3 depicts the output variation. Certainly the specification or a service level
agreement can establish the defect condition, but by labeling the C&E diagram effect in
this way, do we limit the thinking about the causes? How can we understand all the
causes of variation in cycle time if we only think about the times that are beyond the
To me, the C&E diagram implies correlation, even if it cannot be easily measured.
Causality (also referred to as causation) is the relationship between an event (the
cause) and a second event (the effect), where the second event is understood as a
consequence of the first.
If this is true, then shouldnt the C&E effect diagram help us visualize that correlation,
not just the conditions when the defective result occurred?
Adding a cause to a branch on the diagram implies it is a contributory cause. That
means, when the cause is present, one would expect the effect will have a different
outcome result than when it is not present. If this is true, then shouldnt the C&E effect
diagram help us visualize that correlation, not just the conditions when the defective
result occurred?
I believe this is more than mere semantics. I believe it has an impact on how the causes
are listed and labeled. It is a simple change. The labeled effect becomes cycle time

varies. In making this change, the total variation is more in focus. I start to explore why
and when cycle times are extremely short, not just the small segment that are defective.

3. Use causal wording that is measurable or quantifiable.

When a team is brainstorming causes, there is a tendency to add a qualifying adjective
training becomes lack of training. Other qualifying words like inadequate,
improper are commonly observed.
I believe using these words transforms it from a cause to an implied solution. Does not
lack of training really mean, if we provided more training the effect would not exist? It
moves the team away from confirming the correlation to simply implementing a solution.
If one buys into changing how the effect is listed (to show variation section 2 above),
then changing the wording on the listed causes to measurable or quantifiable
descriptions strengthens the correlation message.

For example, if lack of training implies the solution of providing training. By asking,
What would training change? one may provide an answer such as operator
knowledge. Isnt the level of operator knowledge really the type of cause we are
looking for?
Ideally, all causes listed should be measurable. Lack of Training is not. Operator
knowledge is measurable, albeit difficult. If the intended purpose of the cause & effect

diagram is to list sources of variation, with the cause written as Operator Knowledge,
one can envision a distribution of knowledge among the operators.
I suggest working with the team to eliminate these qualifying adjectives. Procedure not
followed becomes % of procedure followed or some other means of measuring the
difference from one process cycle to the next. Inadequate staffing becomes number
of man-hours utilized. These causes are measurable and again I would expect there to
be measurable variation from one process cycle to another.
Some causes are attributes in nature. For example, a cause such as location would
imply that variation existed from location to location. In this example, the procedure is
an attribute. It is an individual entity without variation a specific version of a given
document. These types of causes still work for me, but how I analyze the data simply
changes. If I have two locations or two different procedures, I simply collect output data
and stratify it by the attribute and use a hypothesis test to check for statistical

Using these re-wording suggestions, the revised cause & effect begins to look like the
Figure 5.
In situations where I have used these first three suggestions, the team found the
diagram easier to understand and thereby more useful.

4. See/visualize the correlation of the causes to the


Now, with wording that implies variation in the output (effect) and the inputs (causes),
the next step is to validation the causes with data. With the possible correlation more
visible from the diagram, the use of multiple regression, ANOVA, and hypothesis tests
can begin to provide actual statistical evidence of the relationship. I challenge the team
to draw what they would expect the correlation to be, even if they are yet to collect the

In some cases, collecting the data may be challenging. How do you measure the
operators knowledge? But I do find this correlation discussion, even if only hypothetical,
goes a long way in gaining knowledge about the process. You will find that many times,
another Why question is generated, and then the 5 Whys analysis really becomes

The Heart Of Your Process Improvement Effort

By utilizing these four suggestions, I think the C&E diagram becomes the heart of
any process improvement effort and provides key learning that should be carefully
retained and not be lost simply because personnel move onto other positions or subject
matter experts retire. I believe it will greatly increase the leverage you get from this tool.