What Is Causal Factor Charting?

Avoid Repeating Mistakes

What Is Causal Factor Charting? - Avoid Repeating Mistakes

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Peel back the layers of a problem and get to its cause.

We've all experienced an unfortunate situation at work that we'd rather not repeat. Maybe a new IT system rollout was full of unexpected bugs, or a recent roadshow performed well in some cities but poorly in others.

Sometimes, results fall short of our expectations, regardless of how much careful planning we put in. The reasons can often be frustratingly unclear – or we might make a wrong assumption about the cause, and miss the opportunity to deal with it.

Causal factor charting* is an effective way to work out how a problem developed, and to find ways to avoid it in future. In this article, we'll explore how and when to use this technique.

What Is Causal Factor Charting?

Causal factor charting enables you to investigate the events that led up to a problem in the order that they occurred, and to pinpoint the ones that directly contributed to it. You can build causal factor charting into a wider Root Cause Analysis (RCA), and use it to put strategies and resources in place to prevent similar problems from arising again.

The tool is widely used in investigations into industrial, transportation, and domestic accidents and incidents. It can be a useful way to reveal the source of more general workplace problems, too. But, bear in mind that it's best suited to more complex problems, and it may be "overkill" for simple issues where the root cause is easy to identify.

One of the key benefits of the technique is that it involves creating a chart, or "map," which you can use to identify bottlenecks or gaps in your knowledge. This can help to guide your future thinking and planning.

Causal factor charts vary in size and layout, depending on the nature and complexity of the problem. But they all use specific shapes and symbols to indicate the different types of causal factors. You can see a simple, generic example in figure 1, below. (The different shapes and what each one represents will be explained later in the article.)

Figure 1 – Generic Causal Factor Chart

Generic Causal Factor


How to Use Causal Factor Charting

Causal factor charting is best used after you've made your immediate "fix" to a problem. So, be sure not to distract yourself from "firefighting" by attempting this technique too soon.

But, after you've dealt with the consequences of a problem, you can use causal factor charting to uncover its source. Do this by following these four steps:

Step 1: Define the Problem

First, describe the problem that you've experienced. Write it down in a diamond shape (see figure 2) on the right-hand side of your screen or piece of paper. Keep it brief, and stick to the facts.

In our example, we're going to use causal factor charting to investigate why some marketing materials that were delivered to a conference failed to meet the organizer's specifications. This meant that they couldn't be used, resulting in wasted time and money.

For this problem, we start our causal factor chart by writing "Marketing materials don't meet specifications," inside a diamond shape (see figure 2, below).

Figure 2 – The Problem in a Causal Factor Chart


Step 2: Develop Your Chart

Next, think about what could have contributed to the problem.

Do this by writing down the following:

  • Events – the specific things that happened in the lead-up to the problem. These are represented by rectangles on a causal factor chart. Solid lines or arrows are used to connect them in the sequence in which they occurred.
  • Conditions – the circumstances that contributed to the problem, or the context in which it happened. For instance, equipment failure, weather, or employee skill level. These are represented by oval shapes on the chart, and are connected using dotted lines. 

Once you've made a list of all the events and conditions surrounding your problem, add them to your chart in chronological order. Be concise – try to limit your descriptions to three or four words each.


During your investigation, events and conditions will likely fall into two main categories: "human errors" and "machine errors" (vehicle or computer system failures, for instance). Whatever the case, keep to the facts, and be sure to avoid the "blame game."

In our example (see figure 3, below) we identified three Primary Events that led up to the problem. These were: "Marketing Manager orders materials," "Printer prints materials," and "Printer delivers materials."

Then, we added the Conditions that affected these three events. The marketing manager's lack of experience, and the unclear guidance about the order form, could both have impacted the marketing manager's ability to order the correct materials. So, we've linked these conditions to the event using a dotted line.

If other, separate events may also have contributed to the problem, you can add a second line of events above the first. In our example, the printing company had recently expanded to new premises and upgraded its machines, so we added these to our chart as Secondary Events.

We also added two more conditions: that the printer was busier than usual, and that the conference specifications differed from last year.

Figure 3 – Events and Conditions in a Causal Factor Chart

Events and Conditions in a Causal Factor


You can use sticky notes and paper to create your causal factor chart. Alternatively, you could complete your chart using a template or an app such as PowerPoint.

Step 3: Identify the Causal Factor(s)

The next step is to separate the events and conditions that did have a direct impact on the problem from those that didn't.

Remember to be objective here – use logic, not supposition. Ask yourself whether, if you removed one event or condition from the chart, the problem would have still occurred. If it would not, then that event or condition is a causal factor.

Returning to our example, let's consider whether our problem would still have occurred if the printer had been working on fewer jobs, or if a more experienced marketing manager had been assigned to the project. The answer to both of these questions is uncertain, so neither of these conditions is a causal factor.

The only thing that we know for sure contributed to the problem was that the marketing manager ordered the wrong materials. So, we can add the letters "CF" for causal factor to the event "Marketing Manager orders materials" in our chart (see figure 4, below).

We'll discover more about why this event occurred in the next step, by carrying out a Root Cause Analysis.

Figure 4 – Finding and Labeling the Causal Factor(s)

Finding and Labeling


Not all problems are as simple, or have as few causal factors, as our example. You can view a more extensive causal factor chart here.

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Step 4: Establish Preventative Action

Conducting a Root Cause Analysis for the causal factors that you identified in Step 3 enables you to understand why the problem occurred, and to determine what you need to do to stop it from happening again. 

So, in our example, better communication between the conference organizers and the marketing department, and improved quality-control checks, would all help to ensure that we get correctly sized materials in the future.


After Action Reviews, Sprint Retrospectives, and Post Implementation Reviews can also help you to understand and learn more about workplace problems.

Key Points

Causal factor charting is a visual tool that can help you to investigate the events that led up to a problem, accident or failure. You can use it as part of Root Cause Analysis to support effective change and to avoid repeating similar mistakes.

Each causal factor chart should comprise a "problem," as well as a series of "events" (the specific actions that led up to the problem) and "conditions" (things that affected the problem, such as the weather, poor training, or equipment failure).

These are represented on the chart using different symbols, including diamonds (the problem), rectangles (events) and ovals (conditions).

You can create your own causal factor chart by following these four steps:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Develop your chart.
  3. Identify the causal factor(s).
  4. Establish preventative action.

* Originator unknown – please let us know if you know who developed this model.