What Is Causal Factor Charting?
Avoid Repeating Mistakes
Every workplace, no matter how streamlined and successful, has experienced an unfortunate situation that it wants to avoid repeating. Maybe that new IT system rollout was full of unexpected bugs, or a recent roadshow shone in some cities but sunk in others.
Outcomes sometimes fall short of expectations, regardless of how much careful planning you put in. The reasons can often be frustratingly unclear – or you might wrongly assume the cause, and miss the opportunity to deal with the real issue.
However, causal factor charting is an effective way to uncover how a problem developed, so that you can plan to do things differently in future. In this article, we'll explore how and when to use this technique.
What Is Causal Factor Charting?
Causal factor charting is a way of visualizing what happened in the build up to a problem, step by step, and of highlighting the factors that directly contributed to that problem. When you build it into a wider Root Cause Analysis (RCA), you can put appropriate strategies and resources in place to prevent similar results happening again.
The tool is widely used in investigations into industrial, transportation and domestic accidents and incidents. However, it's useful in most working environments, too. It can complement other diagram-based, problem-solving tools such as Cause and Effect or "Fishbone" Diagrams.
The benefit of creating a chart rather than simply using lists is that the "map" you build will likely reveal gaps in your knowledge, and so guide your research and thinking.
Causal factor charts vary in size and layout depending on the nature and complexity of the problem, but they all use certain shapes and symbols to indicate types of component. You can see a simple, generic example in Figure 1, below.
Figure 1 – Generic Causal Factor Chart
How to Use Causal Factor Charting
Remember, causal factor charting takes place after you've made your immediate "fix" to a problem. So, be sure not to distract yourself from the "firefighting" by attempting this technique too soon.
Once you are ready to review what happened and to plan to avoid a repeat, you'll follow four steps. We'll use the following example to demonstrate them: your marketing material was delivered to a conference, but it didn't meet the organizer's specifications so you couldn't use it.
Step 1: Defining the Problem
First, describe the problem you've experienced, writing in a diamond shape on the right-hand side of your screen or piece of paper. Be succinct, and stick to the facts.
In our example, you could write "Marketing materials don't meet specifications," as in Figure 2, below.
Figure 2 – The Problem in a Causal Factor Chart
Step 2: Develop Your Chart
Now it's time to record the factors that could have contributed to the outcome. Do this by thinking back over the "events" (things that happened) in the lead up to the problem and the "conditions" (or circumstances) of those events. Any of these might be a factor.
Factors are usually one of two types – "human error" or "machine failures" (such as vehicles, computer systems), but be sure to avoid the blame game and keep to the facts in your investigation.
Add your events and conditions to the chart you began with when you identified the problem. You'll likely need to condense your descriptions into just a few words each.
Write down each event in a rectangle, and use solid lines or arrows to connect them in the sequence in which they occurred.
Next, write down any conditions associated with the events, each in an oval shape, and use dotted lines or arrows to show the connections. These will enable you to establish the context in which each event took place.
In our example, four factors arise immediately. Three are conditions: "the assistant marketing manager was new to the role," "the printer had many jobs with tight deadlines" and "the order form guidance was poorly designed."
The fourth is an event: "order submitted for Letter-size flyer." All are possible reasons why the materials were produced to the wrong size.
If you believe that other – but separate – events may have contributed to the problem, you may need a secondary line of events above the first. In our example, the printing company had recently expanded to new premises and upgraded its machines. Could this have caused the problem?
You can see how our example causal factor chart would look at this stage in Figure 3, below.
Figure 3 – Events and Conditions in a Causal Factor Chart
Sticky notes and paper are useful tools to keep handy as you carry out your own causal factor charting exercise, or you can complete your chart using a template, or an app such as PowerPoint. Use whatever method suits you best.
Step 3: Identifying the Causal Factor(s)
The next step is to discount factors that weren't significant, and to identify the ones that had a direct impact. The test to apply is one of logic, not supposition – if, by omitting an event or condition, it would have become impossible for the problem to arise, that event or condition is a causal factor.
In our example, we'd consider whether the problem would still have occurred if the printer had been working on fewer jobs, or if a more experienced marketing manager had been assigned. The answer to both of these questions is uncertain, so neither one is a causal factor.
So, in our example, the assistant was new, the order form guidance was unclear, and the printer was busy, but the only factor that we know for sure created the problem was that the wrong size was ordered. You'll discover why that occurred through the next steps of root cause analysis.
Now add the letters "CF" for "causal factor" on your chart, as we've done in the example in Figure 4, below.
Figure 4 – Finding and Labeling the Causal Factor(s)
Not all problems are as simple, or have as few causal factors, as our example. See the more extensive causal factor charts within this RCA example for a more realistic picture.
Step 4: Establishing Preventative Action
Conducting a root cause analysis of your causal factor(s) will direct you toward what you need to do to avoid a repeat of the problem. But these preventative actions won't fix the current problem – our many problem-solving articles offer a range of ways to do that.
So, in our example, revamping the guidance on the form, improving communication between the conference organizers and the marketing department, or mentoring the new assistant could help you to get correctly sized materials produced for your future campaigns. However, you'll still need to implement a more immediate solution to resolve the existing problems at the conference.
After Action Reviews, "agile" Sprint Retrospectives, and "waterfall" Post Implementation Reviews can all help you to understand and learn from problems in project management. Be sure to pick the right approach for your situation and needs.
Causal factor charting is a visual tool for investigating and recording the development of a problem, accident or failure.
You can use it as part of Root Cause Analysis to support effective change that helps you to avoid repeating your mistakes.
Each causal factor chart is unique, but they generally follow a convention in their terminology (for example "problem," "event," "condition") and symbols (diamonds, rectangles and ovals respectively).
Work back from the problem to identify all the events leading up to it and the conditions that applied at the time. All of these are factors, but only some will be causal.
Assess the actual impact of each factor, and identify those that had to be present for the problem to arise.
Find the root causes of these factors and you'll be able to prevent the same scenario occurring again.