How to make a great fishbone diagram

4 min read

A fishbone diagram is one used often to outline clear and concise timelines with a lot of pertinent information. But what is a fishbone diagram? As the name suggests, the fishbone diagram is so called because its layout looks just like a fish skeleton.

In a fishbone diagram the main line (the ‘spine,’ if you will) defines the core point of the diagram. The diagram also has ‘ribs’ that shoot off the main line to highlight information on the main timeline.

One common use for fishbone diagrams is illustrating a leader’s time in office. The spine represents their tenure, and the ribs communicate milestone achievements to the viewer. When making a fishbone diagram, it’s smart to have ribs at the top and bottom of the chart so data can be read easily.

The fishbone diagram is often called the Ishikawa diagram after a man of the same name who created it at the University of Tokyo in the 1940s. In addition to reflecting on tenures, the fishbone diagram can be used to forecast a process; the main line is the core goal, while the ribs are steps in the process that need to occur.

A core component of fishbone diagramming is that you begin with the end goal, and draw the spine behind it. The ‘goal’ is the head of your fish, the line is the spine, and the ribs are steps in the process.

How to make a fishbone diagram

Knowing how to draw a fishbone diagram begins with ‘fishbone analysis,’ which is a method of defining what happens in a process, and when. Here, we’ll run through the common steps in creating a fishbone diagram, and discuss everything you need to know.

Create a goal

When you start a fishbone diagram, you begin with your end goal. In this exercise, we’ll assume our end goal will take one full year. 

Know what’s necessary to complete your goal

Your goal can be anything you like. Let’s say our goal is to lose a particular amount of weight in the year we’ve set for this goal. We know there are two main components of losing weight: diet and exercise. So we now understand we need to set unique goals for both diet and exercise to lose the amount of weight we want.

Define the sides of the spine

A properly defined fishbone diagram respects two sides of the spine, where goals are laid out at either the top or bottom. For this example, we can define diet as one side, and exercise as the other. 

Keep in mind the spine is a linear representation. So if your goal was to cut sugar from your diet over the course of two months, that would be a goal under ‘diet’ roughly one-sixth of the way down your chart. Another step in the process may be to run a 5k by the midpoint of your journey, which would end up on the ‘exercise’ half of your spine.

Create steps for the process

When plotting the steps necessary to complete a goal, know each of those lines can also have bars to show any important information. If you were to cut sugar, you may want a toss any snacks in your home, including that secret stash of chocolate. Adding a ‘note’ line would be a great opportunity to remind yourself to get rid of all sugary snacks.

Edit your diagram

Once you feel your fishbone diagram is completed, take a critical look at what you’ve created. Does it suit your needs? Is it thorough? Do you need to add or subtract information from it? 

What can you use a fishbone diagram for?

Here are some great opportunities to create a fishbone diagram:

Personal goals. Losing weight is one example, but you could create a fishbone diagram for any goal that happens on a linear path. Paying down debt, fixing a car – anything you like.

Team goals. The ‘ribs’ on your diagram can also be a representation for each team, with the note lines their responsibilities for the project. The fishbone diagram is great when teams can operate independently; if the team is waiting for another team to complete a task first, a flowchart may be a better option.

Cause and effect. Your goal can be a cause or effect of a problem, and the ribs possible solutions, or things to consider. Let’s assume a team was missing its goals on a key performance metric; the fishbone diagram can help list all the possible issues, and potential solutions.

Should you always use a fishbone diagram?

There are two other popular diagram types: mindmapping, and flowcharts. 

Flowcharts are one of the more popular diagram types, and Diagrams is one of the best apps you can download for creating flowcharts. It’s an incredibly simple app to use, too.

It has a simple menu at the top of its window, and creating flowcharts is all about the objects on your chart. You can use one of four shapes for objects, and up to four colors for any shape. This helps you color-code for teams, or unique issues.

Diagrams allows you to quickly and easily define relationships between objects, too. All you have to do is drag from one object to another, and a line will display as you drag to the other object. Once you’ve connected objects, you can also edit the relationship line, which helps even the most complex charts remain readable.

Mindmapping is also incredibly popular, and there are two sensational apps to test when creating a mindmap. 

Mindnode is an incredible app for creating mindmapping diagrams. Mindnode leans into colors and iconography to help your charts stand apart; like Diagrams, you can use color-coding for unique projects or teams in your mind map. 

Mindnode also uses tags to help you tag individuals or teams in a project, which also helps you identify responsible parties, or tag personal tasks as needed.

What do you do after a fishbone diagram

Editing a fishbone diagram is smart because once you publish or display it, especially for a team, you won’t want to continue editing it. Fishbone diagrams should be treated as finished products. If you have to keep editing and tweaking your diagram, you’re not working toward your goal.


Fishbone diagrams are really handy, but not always the right option. When there’s a linear timeline for a project, the fishbone diagram may be your best bet.

But a Gantt view may also be more useful, especially of the project is complex. If that’s the case, we suggest using MindNode to create a mind mapping diagram, and viewing it in the app’s Gantt view!

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