Continuous Improvement Tools in Early Childhood Programs

How Understanding a Problem First Can Help Identify Effective Solutions

In my previous role as an Innovation Specialist in a Head Start organization’s Research & Innovation department, I helped teams better understand problems they identified and a tool that I frequently relied on was a fishbone diagram. It worked for a variety of problems. Why were teachers feeling overwhelmed by challenging behaviors? Why was one of our programs beginning to experience higher participant turnover?

A fishbone diagram is a flexible tool that can be used by any team that wants to better understand a result or outcome they are seeing. A crucial first step before jumping to potential solutions.

What is a fishbone diagram?

A fishbone diagram is a visual representation of a group’s thinking about the root causes of a specific, identified problem.

A blank fishbone diagram. There is a box for the problem statement on the right, a line stems from the left of the box with six branches. Each branch has a box for a category at the end and three stems for causes.

How do you build one?

Step one: Identify your problem statement: What specific problem are you trying to understand?

There are a variety of ways a group can arrive at a usable problem statement. One of the easiest may be to have a facilitator draft a statement for a team to react to and revise together. You can also start from scratch and let the team co-create it. Or everyone can independently draft a statement and the team can cross walk the options and bring together the pieces they like. Whatever way teams decide to go about it, the outcome you are working towards is the same. At the end, everyone should have a shared understanding of a clear and specific problem that the team is trying to solve.

Problem Statement Examples:

  • Our early childhood center saw a 5% increase in chronic absences this month.
  • Early childhood programs in our system are experiencing financial instability.
  • Children from households that speak a language other than English or Spanish are leaving early intervention services at higher rates.

Step two: Brainstorm causes: What could be contributing to the problem?

Facilitators must again decide how best to structure this brainstorming activity with their group. Factors to consider include the size of the group, how familiar or comfortable people are with one another, and the time available for the activity. One way is to have everyone brainstorm independently first and then go around the room and share. To set the tone for a productive conversation try using the question:

“What might be contributing to the problem we identified?” and then encourage people to share their responses with the sentence stem, “Something that could be contributing might be…”.

A helpful part of this approach is that it allows you to see which causes are being thought of by multiple people, which itself can be a piece of data.

Step three: Group causes into categories

Once a team has brainstormed all the causes that they can think of it is time to look for groupings of causes that make sense. This can be done together, or someone could be working to group ideas as they are being shared out, which the team can then react to and provide feedback. These categories become the larger branches of the diagram from which the causes stem. See the example below:

A completed fishbone diagram. The problem statement says "Chronic absences at our early childhood center increased by 5% this month." There are four categories: transportation issues, illness, lack of communication with families, and unmet childcare needs.

Step four: Review the fishbone diagram

It’s time to step back and discuss what the team has produced so far. Helpful questions to consider here are:

  • Are there additional contributing factors that emerge now that you see things organized by category?
  • What is the evidence you have for each of these causes? What evidence or data do you still need?
  • What questions could you ask to help gather information about these potential causes?
  • What causes do you have confidence are contributing to the problem? Which causes are you less confident about?
  • What causes do you think might be most important for contributing to problem? Which ones do you think are least important?
  • Is there anyone you can share this fishbone diagram with who could offer additional insight?

High Tech High Graduate School of Education has another protocol for generating a fishbone diagram, along with other continuous improvement tools that may be of interest.

When can you use a fishbone diagram?

1. To frame tricky conversations

Fishbone diagrams can be great entry points into difficult conversations about what’s not working and why. They can provide a safe structure for people to offer their ideas about contributing factors, especially when the facilitator sets a positive tone for the conversation.

2. To kick off an exploration of a problem

Fishbone diagrams are particularly helpful in the early stages of understanding a problem. Using the collective brain power of the team, many potential causes can be identified that will set the team up for a robust investigation. Once you have your drafted fishbone you can use it as a guide to identify solutions.

3. To track your evolving understanding of the problem

Once you’ve done more work to understand your problem, return to your diagram and see how your thinking has evolved.

  • Which causes do you feel more confident about now? Are there any you feel less confident about?
  • Have you identified any new contributing factors?
  • Has the information you collected changed how you feel about the most important contributing factors?
  • What solutions does a clear problem definition point to?

4. To help identify effective solutions

At this point a team is in a much better position to identify potential solutions and to understand why a solution might be particularly effective.

Lyndsay Shields

Lindsay Shields

Lindsay is the Research and Operations Coordinator at ECE Insights and a second-year Ph.D. student in CU Denver’s Child, Youth, and Family Studies program concentrating on Early Childhood Policy. She has years of experience working at a Head Start program in Tulsa, Oklahoma where she began as a preschool teacher and then worked in the program’s Research and Innovation department.

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