Applying the Ishikawa Diagram to Solving Corporate Problems

A problem is a negative state or event that we (individually, department or company as a whole) interferes with something and threatens to cause even greater problems. Much of the time in management is spent “patching corporate holes” or creating conditions so that problems do not arise. In this article I will tell you about a method that will help you do this work more systematically and more efficiently.

There are two types of problems:

  1. Existing (arising here and now);

  2. Potential (may arise in the future).

Issues may be important to some people and unimportant to others. This happens because a specific person or a local group of people sees or experiences negative consequences, but not the whole team. If the social weight of an individual or group of people is low, then the problem will be considered unimportant for the opposite side. Therefore, it is often difficult to report the presence of problems to the team on the part of the business owner, or, conversely, on the part of the team to the owner.

An important conclusion follows from this: the more important the problem is, the more people with high social weight it affects or may affect in the future. If two people are aware of the problem, then this is already a more important problem than the problem of one person, but less important than the absence of problems in three people.

You need to formulate the problem in such a way that the environment understands that the consequences can affect them.

I propose to rank the problems in this way:

  • Level 1 problems are those that harm or may harm the entire group of interacting people. Such problems can be called Company problems.

  • Level 2 problems are those that harm or could harm a group of people in the department. They can be called “Problems of departments”.

  • Level 3 problems are those that cause or can cause harm to a particular person. This “Employee problems”

Local problems of employees (level 3) can affect the activities of departments (level 2). Problems of departments affect the company’s activities and systemic problems arise (level 1).

Graphical display of problem levels
Graphical display of problem levels

Causal relationships

All company problems are subject to the law of cause and effect. If we do something, then something happens. A problem is a consequence, the cause of which was some action.

The way to solve the problem is to counteract the causes.

To correct corporate problems (consequences), you need to:

  1. Formulate problems;

  2. Determine why this is a problem.

  3. Determine the rank of the problem (personal, department or company);

  4. Formulate the causes of problems;

  5. To correct the causes, that is, to counteract;

  6. Check if we have solved the problem and fix the result;

  7. If there is no solution to the problem, reconsider the actions.

1. Formulate problems.

This should be done concisely. For example: “We do not have an engineer” or “Clients refuse to cooperate”, or “There is no office in the department.” To fix problems, you can create a section in the corporate knowledge base or invite employees to send them to email.

2. Explain why you think this is a problem.

For example: “We do not have an engineer – this is a problem, because without him we cannot calculate the loads of structures on the walls and make mistakes in the design.”

3. Determine the rank or level of the problem.

Is the problem voiced personal, department or company? You can build on explanations that already contain hints. In the example above, based on the results of the explanation, it turns out that “Absence of an engineer” is either someone’s personal problem or a problem of a department (that is, a problem of 2 or 3 levels), but “We cannot calculate the loads” and “we often make mistakes” – one of the problems of the company (level 1). Determining the rank is important in terms of prioritization and resource allocation. If the problem directly and strongly affects the economic results of the company (it has signs of level 1), it should be given more attention.

4. Formulate the causes of problems.

To determine the causes of problems, there is a graphical tool called cause-and-effect diagram (Ishikawa Diagram), which was developed in the middle of the 20th century to identify production problems in Japanese enterprises, after which it gained recognition from managers around the world.

You can read more about the tool in Wikipedia or on the Internet.

If there are curious mathematicians among the readers, then you can notice that the structure of the diagram resembles a directed graph.
If there are curious mathematicians among the readers, then you can notice that the structure of the diagram resembles a directed graph.

How to use the tool. In short:

  • Take a sheet of paper and a pen.

  • We formulate the problem. It is always drawn on the sheet as a separate block on the right.

  • A problem always has a consequence. We depict it as an arrow resting on the problem on the left.

  • If the problem is local, then there is only one arrow of effects and one cause.

  • If the problem is systemic, then the reasons of the 2nd level are attached to the main cause from the sides in the form of arrows, and the reasons of the 3rd level can join them, and so on. Thus, a tree of cause-and-effect relationships is obtained.

The result of drawing up the diagram may look like this (taken from the Internet).
The result of drawing up the diagram may look like this (taken from the Internet).

5. Correct the causes, that is, provide a counteraction.

I will give an example of counteractions at the local level. For example, we experience hunger. In this case, the diagram might look like this:

What should be done to get rid of the problem? Eat. We simply change our cause with a “-” sign (lack of food in the body) to an action with a “+” sign. Thus, we solve the problem.

Level 1 causes “Lack of food in the body” can be identified as level 2 causes. For example, we cannot eat because: a) We are busy; b) We have an empty refrigerator. In this case, the way to solve the problem will be: a) Free up time for eating; b) Go to the store and buy groceries. c) eat.

The same principle of “correcting causes” or counter-actions is used to solve corporate problems.

6. Check if we have solved the problem.

Local problems are solved quickly, but even saturation after eating does not occur immediately. The bigger the problem, the longer it takes to show results. Respectively:

  1. After identifying the problem and adjusting the actions, it takes time;

  2. Depending on the problem (local or system), the timing of changes may vary.

Conditional example to explain the logic:

  • It takes centuries to solve systemic problems at the planetary level;

  • It takes decades to solve systemic problems at the state level;

  • It takes several years to solve systemic problems at the company level;

  • It takes 1 year to solve the systemic problem of the department;

  • It takes 1 month to solve a local problem of an employee.

If you waited and saw changes after applying counter-actions, reinforce the behavior. It is useful to create a database of situational regulations in which employees alienate personal experience in solving problems for the benefit of the company. This helps, on the one hand, to spread the practice to related departments, on the other hand, it reduces the time for making decisions in the future in similar conditions.

7. If there is no solution to the problem, reconsider the actions.

I will highlight two reasons why the problem may not be solved:

To be honest, on the last point, I do not have a clear, 100% working algorithm of actions. If a person were able to determine with maximum accuracy all the causes of certain events, then we would not encounter the concept of “Black Swans”, and our whole life would be 100% orderly and predictable. Definitely, I can only say that in the decomposition of causal relationships, we use deduction and abduction. Deduction is a logical way of deriving cause and effect relationships, and abduction is an intuitive way based on curiosity and creative abilities. Obviously, these skills are worth developing. For these purposes, you can use the ideas of Eliyahu Goldratt or TRIZ by Heinrich Altshuller.

As for the priority of actions, here you can rely on the critical path method (critical path method), more precisely, on a simplified, my subjective interpretation.

It sounds like this: In order to solve the problem with a 100% probability, you need to perform all possible and known counter-actions. Some of the actions will be less significant, some more, but collectively they will inevitably lead to a result.

Since our task is also related to solving the problem as quickly as possible, it is necessary, first of all, to find the shortest path, in which there are the least number of operations, but with a more effective, according to our hypotheses, impact.

An illustration of the definition of the critical path in the chain of possible counter-actions.
An illustration of the definition of the critical path in the chain of possible counter-actions.

Thus, if we are talking about solving a systemic corporate problem or a problem in a department, we can form a plan for possible changes (path options from many causes to the desired effect) and arrange tasks in order, from simpler and more powerful to more complex. This will be the most optimal prioritization of ways to solve corporate problems.

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