A Fishy Approach to Risk

One of the joys of my working life is doing something innovative.  So to be asked to develop a three module course on Problem Solving and Decision Making was great, and our client, SAP, is a great company.

But it’s better. This work gave me a chance to learn how to develop training for a virtual classroom.  Up to 16 participants around the world, learning with one facilitator, using great technology.

This is all beside the point

The point is this: running today’s module, on analytical methods, we covered a great problem solving tool which I also use for risk management.  I suspect many change leaders, and project and risk managers will have heard of it – but never thought to use it in their risk management process.

I am talking about Fishbone Diagrams


Photo by Johnath




Fishbone diagrams are used to find root causes and are formally known as the Ishikawa Method.  This tool is ideal for getting to causes.

We draw a fishbone diagram, putting the problem at the head of the fish.  We then identify all of the possible causes and place each onto a “rib”. In the example below, here are eight typical sources of a problem.

Fishbone Diagram

We might then break each one down further, identifying different reasons why the hardware, data, processes or skills might cause the problem.  With “skills”, for example, the cause could be lack of training, inappropriate training, poor workplace support for developing skills, or poor motivation to use the skills.

How does this apply to Risk Management?

When we are identifying our risks, we often end up with a load of risks that are hard to manage, because they are poorly specified.  They are big and nebulous, because they are really not one risk at all: they are a basket of other, more specific risks.

Here are some examples:

  • When we move HQ building, there is a risk we won’t be able to sell the old property
  • There may be a technical problem with the AV equipment at the conference we are organising
  • Our new product launch could be delayed by problems with the point of sale materials

All of these are real concerns, but each is the outcome of many individual risks.  By writing the concern into the fish head, you can then use your fishbone diagram to identify potential causes of the outcome.

Each of these causes is a risk that you can manage: each will have its own likelihood, impact, proximity and mitigating strategies.

The “so what?”

Don’t accept risks onto your risk register that you cannot manage, because they are too woolly or general; focus your risk management on causes, not outcomes; try out the fishbone method as a way to find causes in your risk analysis.

Kaoru Ishikawa


Read more about Kaoru Ishikawa,
inventor of the Fishbone Diagram.


3 thoughts on “A Fishy Approach to Risk

  1. Dionne D Stewart

    Great post. I never thought of using the Fishbone diagram to drive clarity when identifying risk. Will add this to my PM arsenal.

  2. John C Goodpasture

    A good post on an old friend. You mentioned ‘root cause’, but did not mention the myriad other root cause techniques use to projects, some equally well know and some, but not all, easily applied.

    For instance, the ‘5-Whys’ in my experience gets at the root cause quicker and more robustly than a graphic approach, and lends itself well to relational databases. It also was developed in Japan, specifically at Toyota. Hmmm, I wonder if they are busy using it now?

    Other root cause techniques you might want to post on are given below:
    Barrier analysis; FEMA analysis;
    Bayesian inference
    Causal factor tree analysis; Fault trees; ITIL RPR
    Change analysis –
    Current Reality Tree; Six Sigma Methods


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