An Agile Approach to Problem Solving: Fishbone Diagram and 5 Whys

fishbone and 5 whys

Putting out fires is part of nearly everyone’s job, but if you’re not taking some time to determine if the cause is arson or a lightning strike, you may find yourself putting out the same fire every week.

Both agile and traditional marketing teams need to remember that quick action doesn’t always equate to agility. We need to take the time to make sure that we’re solving the right problems.

The 5 Whys and Fishbone Diagrams aren’t strictly agile tools (they have their roots in manufacturing), but agile teams often use them to root out pernicious processes that can sabotage the success of a sprint.

Whether you’ve completely adopted an agile approach or are still following a long term Marketing Plan, these two problem solving techniques will help you make sure that the fire you’re putting out isn’t going to be back tomorrow.

Fewer fires means more time for high priority marketing objectives, and that means more measurable success.

It’s a big win that starts with a simple question: why?

Get at Root Causes, Not Obvious Symptoms

Leaving root causes uninvestigated while tackling their symptoms is a recipe for rework. It will eat away at your team’s ability to fully focus, and it will impact your sprints’ success rate.

Nobody wants to keep redoing the same work, but it can be difficult to figure out where the problems are coming from.

Overt symptoms are easy to spot. They’re the puddle of water on your floor that you just can’t ignore.

But if you just mop up the puddle, you’re going to keep encountering the same problem. Instead of accepting the problem and buying more towels, you need to get at the cause.

Asking the Right Questions, Over and Over Again

The Toyota Production Team pioneered an approach called The 5 Whys to help identify issues with manufacturing processes, but the technique applies to all sorts of situations.

Taiichi Ohno, architect of the Toyota Production System, has said that “by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”1

Let’s use the puddle on my floor as an example. My first question could be, “Why is my floor wet?”

A very basic answer might be, “Because my roof is leaking.”

I could leave the investigation there, since it won’t be raining forever and the leak isn’t a problem all the time, but I haven’t learned anything about the real solution (how to keep water out of my house).

So I can ask why again: “Why is my roof leaking?”

Now we’re starting to get somewhere. It could be that I’ve lost some shingles, or maybe a tree branch poked a hole in the roof. But answering this next why is going to take some investigation.

It turns out, some shingles are missing from that part of my roof, and that’s why it’s leaking. Again, we could leave it here, but we’d be leaving a larger problem unaddressed.

Here comes Why #3: Why are there shingles missing from my roof?

The systemic issue at the heart of the problem is now emerging. It seems that there are missing shingles because the nails are so rusted that they can’t hold the shingles in place anymore.

The next why gets even more revelatory: Why are the nails so rusty?

Because they are over 20 years old. Why are they over 20 years old? Because the roof hasn’t been replaced in over 20 years.

Looks like I need a new roof.

If my home improvement projects were run in sprints, my next one would need to be focused on all the tasks involved in getting that roof replaced:

  • request bids
  • evaluate proposals
  • choose roofer
  • schedule installation
  • choose new shingle styles
  • oversee removal and installation
  • check new roof for issues

It might take some time and effort to get it fixed, but allowing this big problem to go unaddressed will allow it to keep creating little puddle problems that sidetrack me from my ongoing, more important tasks.

And that type of situation is a recipe for failed sprints and sub-par marketing efforts.

Diagramming the Problem, Fish-Style

In a marketing department, you may have puddles of your own to deal with, and asking why about them over and over again can help you identify and address the leaky roof that’s creating them, instead of just cleaning up the same mess a dozen times a week.

Using The 5 Whys can help you get at the root of a problem, but sometimes there are multiple issues that need to be tackled.

A Fishbone, or Ishikawa, Diagram is one way to expand the reach of The 5 Whys to make sure you aren’t overlooking a potential secondary cause to a problem.

Its goal is to reveal key relationships among various variables, and the possible causes to provide additional insight.

A blank diagram looks like this:

blank fishbone diagram

You begin with the problem statement and move through various categories of root causes until you get to what’s really causing the problem (effect).

These categories aren’t set in stone; in fact, you can brainstorm as many of them as you think are necessary to completely root out issues within your organization or department.

The roof example from earlier might have categories like this:

fishbone diagram roof

If you’re having trouble coming up with the possible causes, there are 7 P’s often used as categories in marketing:

  1. Product/Service
  2. Price
  3. Place
  4. Promotion
  5. People/Personnel
  6. Process
  7. Physical Evidence

You can be confident when you’ve identified an actual culprit, because the real root cause should point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist.

A Fictional Marketing Example

Let’s imagine a marketing department that has historically been very successful on social media. They sell messenger bags specifically for professional women, and they’ve got a nice niche presence.

All of a sudden, their social media conversions plummet.

This directly impacts their bottom line, so they could understandably react rapidly and without devoting much time to problem solving.

But applying The 5 Whys and a Fishbone Diagram could mean the difference between mopping up a puddle or replacing the leaking roof.

fishbone diagram example

The department might assume that the content of the social media channels is no longer resonating with their audience and change it drastically. Or they might think that their tracking system had broken and spend days troubleshooting it. It could also be that a new checkout process was causing problems for all sales, not just social media referrals.

These assumptions are dangerous, because if they act on all of them they may be creating new problems and/or ignoring larger, more systemic failures.

By stepping back and asking why, they could discover the real root cause. The process might look like this:

Why isn’t social media generating any sales for us?

Because the traffic from Facebook and LinkedIn is down 75%.

Why is that traffic down so much?

Because we are getting far fewer clicks on the links we are sharing.

Why aren’t we getting any clicks?

Because there aren’t images going out with our posts. (This would require some thorough comparison of previously high-performing posts and current poor performers)

Why aren’t there images?

Because our social scheduling tool has a bug.

Four Why’s into the process they’ve figured out the source of the problem, and they can address it fairly easily.

A Fishbone Diagram will make this even more useful, because they could find not only this process problem, but also a potential employee problem as well.

They could start another set of Why’s off with, “Why didn’t anyone notice that our Facebook and LinkedIn posts had broken images?”

This line of inquiry might reveal some gaps in understanding of employees running the social media campaigns, or even some serious negligence that needs to be addressed.

It could also be a matter of employees not having the right amount of time to devote to social media, which is a completely different root cause that needs attention.

The Unexamined Problem Isn’t Worth Solving

By asking “Why?” as many times as it takes and looking into various potential sources throughout your department, you can be confident that your problems will be one time affairs.

One caveat: you may not like what you uncover with these techniques. Be prepared to turn over some uncomfortable rocks, particularly if you’re asking “why?” about employees or processes. Problems in these areas can go unexamined for years in some organizations.

But if you ask the hard questions you can get the strong answers that will let you make real change and see real results.

Want to use the Fishbone Diagram for your own problems? Feel free to download the blank version of ours.


1. Taiichi Ohno; foreword by Norman Bodek (1988). Toyota production system: beyond large-scale production. Portland, Or: Productivity Press. ISBN 0-915299-14-3.

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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