Cause and Effect Analysis: Definition, Benefits and Use

Updated February 3, 2023

Illustration depicting a person pointing to an area of a cause of effect analysis diagram on a white board

One method to solve problems at work is by implementing a cause and effect analysis, a diagram-based tool that allows you to assess a problem and identify the root causes to create a solution. It is an assessment technique that can help you solve complicated issues by breaking complicated issues down into smaller parts.

In this article, we discuss how cause and effect analysis can help solve business problems and show how to perform two of the most common cause and effect analysis methods—fishbone and why tree analysis,

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What is cause and effect analysis?

Cause and effect analysis, also called a “cause and effect diagram,” is an assessment tool that combines brainstorming and mind mapping techniques to explore the possible causes of an issue. It was developed by Kaoru Ishikawa, a quality management pioneer in the 1960s and originally used as a quality control tool.

While cause and effect analysis is not exclusive to any industry, many professionals in management and business use this analysis method. They identify problems in the workplace or a project and investigate possible causes through brainstorming sessions and visual aids.

The steps taken to accomplish cause and effect analysis depend on the method used. Professionals perform cause and effect analysis in a variety of ways including the most common methods of fishbone analysis and why tree analysis.

Related: Problem-Solving Skills: Definitions and Examples

Benefits of cause and effect analysis

Cause and effect analysis is a valuable tool that expands your ability to analyze and fix problems within your professional life. Some benefits of using cause and effect analysis include:

Simplifying a problem

When dealing with a complex problem, it's sometimes difficult to know where to start. Performing cause and effect analysis allows you to refine one large problem until it is a series of smaller concerns. This can make it easier to address the elements in need of correction and begin working toward improved performance.

Focusing your approach

Using cause and effect analysis helps you provide focus when working towards solutions. By addressing an issue as a series of smaller concerns, you can assign staff to different elements of an improvement plan that allows them to specialize and perform fixes at a higher level than if they were trying to solve the entire issue at once.

Visually representing problems

Using the fishbone style of cause and effect analysis yields a visual representation of the issue you assess. This is valuable when assigning staff to the problem as well as in identifying areas of greater or lesser concern based on either the number of branches contributing to a single issue or the number of smaller sections affected by a larger issue.

Solving root problems

With a cause and effect analysis, you focus on an issue until you reach the core problems that start other issues in your process. This allows you to repair issues at the source and reduce the total work to make adjustments.

Improving structural elements

Finding core issues with your procedures and addressing them is an excellent way to build a foundation for future work. Identifying and updating areas for concern with wide-ranging effects stabilizes operations and provides a more secure opportunity when starting new policies and protocols as well.

Encouraging discussion

A cause and effect analysis meeting lets you engage with your staff and seek their opinions on issues with the company. Other employees may provide a perspective that allows you to find a new answer in a why tree or additional spires for a fishbone analysis. This helps you to find the best solution more often and keeps staff engaged by showing their opinions matter.

Related: How To Run an Effective Staff Meeting

How to do a fishbone cause and effect analysis

A fishbone cause and effect analysis gets its name from the similarities between a complete analysis and the skeleton of a fish. A central spine features multiple offshoots, which may branch further. A fishbone analysis seeks to define the distinct elements contributing to a problem and any factors contributing to those elements to provide a full overview of the contributing factors. Here is how to create your own fishbone cause and effect analysis:

1. Identify the problem

First, write down the exact problem as you understand it. Where appropriate, identify who is involved, what the problem is, and when and where it occurs. When you assess the problem, broadening your perspective can help you identify causes more effectively. Asking staff for their opinions about causes and solutions helps guide you. You also may choose to include staff during the fishbone analysis to help you create the chart.

2. Create your primary node

The base of a fishbone analysis is the central problem you are trying to resolve. Represent the core problem on your chart with a large node. When drawing your analysis physically and with limited space, place this on the left side of the space, centered vertically, to maximize your available space when adding to the chart. Draw a horizontal line from the node and run across the length of the creative space.

3. Chart contributing elements

The first additions to your chart are all elements that you associate with the problem being addressed. For example, you may include individual departments, budgeting, resources, time and other key elements of a project. These first branches are not problems themselves but are instead parts of the project that can have problems in their execution. Brainstorm any other factors that may affect the situation. Draw a vertical line for each element and label the lines with the elements they represent such as site, task, people, equipment or control.

4. Branch off elements with causes

Consider each problem as you think about the ways it contributes to the project you are assessing and think about the ways the element contributes to the problem. For each contributing factor, draw a horizontal line off of the element's line, labeled with the cause. Repeat this process for each element on the chart.

5. Subdivide causes if needed

During the previous step, there may be times where contributing causes to the problem may be complex issues with several components. In these cases, further subdivide the elements as needed, alternating vertical and horizontal lines. The goal is for each line with no offshoots to represent a final concern with no smaller factors.

6. Analyze the completed chart

After filling in the bones for each element of the chart, try to use it to look for areas in need of improvement. If a particular element has many causes, for example, you may need to provide an additional focus on this area to improve results and solve the larger problem. The chart may also allow you to see lower-level concerns that have significant ties to larger issues, which allow you to make improvements with minor adjustments.

7. Assess the implementation of new plans

While the fishbone cause and effect analysis can provide valuable guidance when creating alternative plans, it's important to monitor results to ensure that they meet the standards you expect. Tracking results based on your new efforts may allow you to update your chart, removing areas that are no longer causes for concern and adding in new issues that you need to address. This allows for continued improvement.

Related: Q&A: What Is a Fishbone Diagram?

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How to do a why tree cause and effect analysis

When you are focusing on finding a singular cause for a problem and are not concerned with having a visual aid, a why tree analysis may be your best option. In a why tree cause and effect analysis, you start with the primary issue, then continually seek smaller issues causing it until you find the first problem in need of a solution. Professionals also call this the 5 Whys method. Here is how to perform a why tree analysis:

1. Identify the primary issue

As with a fishbone analysis, a why tree cause and effect analysis begins with a central problem you need to solve. This can be any issue in need of a solution. For example, a production line may be producing too many errors or sales staff may be failing to meet established purchase quotas.

2. Ask why the problem occurs

After identifying the problem, ask yourself why that problem occurs in the most direct answer available. This first response does not need to provide a solution. For example, if you sought to analyze your flagging sales numbers, you might determine that the reason for lower sales is a decrease in quality for leads provided to the sales staff.

3. Continue asking why

In most cases, the response to your first why is likely to be a fresh problem. For example, you may now face the question of why the leads are not high quality. Continue answering each why question until you reach an actionable solution to the problem.

Continuing the sales example, you may decide that decreased lead quality is a byproduct of poor lead generation by your social media advertising. By asking why those are less effective, you determine that too many ads are screening for users who have previously clicked on your ads but did not sign up.

4. Speak with your staff

As with fishbone analysis, it's beneficial to include your staff in assessments of the reasons for problems as you answer the why questions. Staff can help you find accurate responses to the why questions and help you identify the best solution to your last question. This improves the chances of a successful implementation.

5. Enact the solution

After determining the answer to your final why question and deciding on the best solution to solve the final problem, you are ready to implement your changes. Monitoring the results allows you to track the effectiveness of your new approach. It also allows you to perform a new analysis if needed to make further changes.

In the sales example, you may decide to block any users who have a cookie for the site you post your ads. By tracking the results for the newly generated leads you can determine if it solved the issue or if you need to refine your plans further.

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