Tech & Work

Create fishbone diagrams with the XMind open-source tool

After trying several mind mapping tools for building fishbone diagrams, Andy Makar recommends using XMind during your next IT project brainstorming session.

The fishbone diagram was created by Kaoru Ishikawa in the 1960s and has become a useful tool in quality management. The fishbone diagram, also known as an Ishikawa diagram or a Cause and Effect Diagram, gets its name because it represents a fish skeleton (Figure A). Figure A

Fishbone diagram. (Click the image to enlarge.)

A fishbone diagram is composed of a single effect and multiple causes. The head of the fishbone represents the problem statement, and the body of the fishbone represents multiple causes that contribute to the overall effect or problem. The main parts of the skeleton represent the common categories used to organize the causes of the problem. Common categories in the IT domain could include people, process, requirements, architecture, organization, and tools. Common categories in a manufacturing process typically include people, methods, equipment, materials, measures, and environment. These categories are guidelines rather than restrictions; categories often emerge from the discussion about potential causes for the specific problem.

In Figure B, the fishbone diagram depicts causes for long software delivery life cycles. In this example, the common categories are methodology, software testing, project management, business case, vendors, and hardware. Figure B

IT problem fishbone diagram. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Building a fishbone diagram in XMind

A fishbone diagram is often facilitated during a brainstorming session. I've worked with several mind-mapping tools for fishbone diagrams, and XMind is the solution I recommend for creating these diagrams.

XMind is a free, open-source, mind-mapping tool based on the Eclipse software development framework. XMind is user friendly, and the basic software package supports a ton of mind-mapping features, including mind map, spreadsheet, and fishbone diagram views. The Pro version of the software (which costs $49USD per year) provides Microsoft Office integration and several project management features that are geared toward business users. For instance, XMind provides a collaboration service to share public mind maps; private mind maps are part of the XMind Pro subscription. (Here's a chart that compares the features in XMind and XMind Pro.)

For this tutorial, you'll need only the free XMind version to develop a fishbone diagram. Download XMind 3 to get started.

Step 1: Start XMind and the default mind map will appear (Figure C). Figure C

XMind default screen. (Click the image to enlarge.)
Step 2: Click the center node and rename the topic to be the high-level problem statement. Step 3: Click Structure under the Properties tab and select the Fishbone (Left Headed) drop-down option (Figure D). Figure D

Properties | Structure and Fishbone (Left Headed). (Click the image to enlarge.)
Step 4: Click the fishbone head and press Insert; this will create a new Cause category on the fishbone skeleton. Click each category and rename it. If you need a sample set of categories, use people, process, equipment, materials, environment, and management (Figure E). Figure E

Sample categories. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Repeat this process for each major category. In brainstorming sessions, these categories may be combined and refined as each idea is further categorized.

Step 5: To insert additional causes to a category, click the desired category and click Insert; this will create another branch. Repeat this process for each idea and use it to capture additional reasons for the specific problem (Figure F). Figure F

Sample causes. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Once you complete your brainstorming session, you'll likely need to clean up the fishbone diagram and reword, reorganize, and further edit the various causes to your specific problem. With XMind, you can easily move and recategorize nodes. Then you can export the fishbone diagram into an image file or an HTML document by going to File | Export and selecting the document type.

Give XMind a try for your next fishbone diagram!

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About Andrew Makar

Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of How To Use Microsoft Project and Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice visit

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