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Too many arrows and boxes

Sometimes the diagram gets too messy to be readable. In that case you need to simplify it. Here are some techniques:

  • Remove redundant boxes (i.e. boxes that don’t add much value to the diagram).
  • Focus on “depth first” rather than “breadth first”. Don’t write all causes of a problem, write only the most important one or two, and then keep digging deeper.
  • Accept imperfections, a diagram like this will never be perfect. “All models are wrong, but some are useful” (George Box)
  • Maybe your problem area is too broad, try to limit yourself to a more narrowly defined problem.
  • Split the diagram into pieces, like I did in example 3 above.


This type of cause-effect diagram is simple, intentionally so. It doesn’t replace face-to-face communication. If you need something more advanced or formally defined read a book on systems thinking, such as “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge. There are ways to distinguish between reinforcing loops and balancing loops, and ways of adding a temporal dimension (showing how X causes Y but with a delay). Just beware – even a “perfect” diagram is pretty useless if you need a doctor’s degree to understand it.

Getting personal

Avoid “blame game” issues such as:

Problem solving works best if you assume that all problems are systemic. Sure there are clumsy people. But even if that is causing us significant problems then that is still a systemic problem – we have a system that assumes clumsy people aren’t clumsy, or a system that lets extremely clumsy people in, or a system that doesn’t help clumsy people get less clumsy, etc.

This point is worth emphasizing: Treat all problems as systemic!

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