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by Carl E. Frahme, Ph.D.

The Fishbone Session

When you are faced with a problem, or an opportunity, try running a Fishbone session with your staff. We have found it to be a very powerful yet simple way to generate innovative solutions, and we use it a lot. It is also important because it really gets your people involved in solutions in which they have a stake and a sense of ownership. Sometimes it is called a cause and effect session, but fishbone visually describes the diagram used.

Use This Diagram

Gather your troops at a blackboard and draw the diagram below:

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This is the basic fishbone diagram using the Man-Method-Material-Machine format, which is only one possibility. It is probably best used for problem solving.

Here Are the Basic Steps and Rules

There are a number of steps and rules you should try to follow.

1. Define the problem or opportunity in a brief statement that all can agree upon.

2. It is often useful to use the Man-Method-Material-Machine format shown above to help organize possible solutions into categories. However, you may want to devise your own basic organizational scheme. These outgrowths become the main fishbones in your diagram. You will add smaller branches to some or all of these as you proceed.

3. The next stage is an open brainstorming session in which any idea (a cause for the defined problem, for example), no matter how far-fetched, is allowed and is added to the diagram as another fishbone "leg" on one of the appropriate major categories. The idea is to generate as many ideas as possible that would explain why the problem exists or how the opportunity might be seized. No discussion as to the merits of the idea and especially no negative comments are allowed. This absolutely must be strictly enforced! The only discussion might concern under which branch to place the idea, and the moderator should quickly step in to make a placement in case of disagreement, even if the placement is arbitrary.

4. After your group has exhausted its ideas, discussion is allowed. It is most helpful if this takes the form of an explanation of the concept or thinking behind each idea by the one who proposed it, and even expansions on the idea. Try to keep things positive, and don't drag it out!

5. Number or letter each idea on the fishbone diagram and provide each person with a piece of paper. Each person is to select the five ideas he or she thinks have the most merit in defining the problem, causes, or opportunity and is to rank these five from most important to least important. The most important is given a numerical value of five, the next four, and so forth.

6. Now go around your group one by one and ask them for their rankings. Put a "5" on the board next to each person's highest ranked item, a "4" next to the second highest ranked item, and so forth until all five are on the board. Repeat this process with each person in the group.

7. Total the values next to each item on the fishbone diagram. The item with the highest total is the one the group has selected as having the most potential for defining or solving the problem or opportunity. It does not, of course, guarantee that this idea, or any of them for that matter, will actually work. It is instead a powerful tool for prioritizing problem or opportunity solving, for generating novel or innovative solutions, and for involving people intimately in the process. It is surprising how often this simple process generates good solutions and ideas.

It is simple to do, involves everyone in the solution process, and goes a long ways toward assuring strong support for solution implemetation. Well, we've given you one of our proven, better techniques for generating answers to tough problems.

Why not go fishing, or let us help you do so??

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