How to Make a Timeline

Mark Galley


Cause Mapping

A timeline captures the chronological order in which things happened. There is a time and order for everything from world history to your life story to every problem at a company. For a problem investigation, a timeline provides a simple and convenient way to begin organizing detail. It captures what happened and when. Depending on the complexity of the problem, there may be many different parts that need to be pieced together in chronological order to understand an issue. Fortunately, there is a time (or period of time) in which each part happened.

A problem may have an instant in time when the equipment failed, the line stopped, the person was injured, the collision occurred or the tank ruptured. That time is when that consequence happened, but there are things that occurred before the consequence, some well before, that are relevant to the issue. That detail should be recorded on a timeline. Written reports sometimes have a section labeled background information to help provide context. Within the Cause Mapping® method, this information is included as part of the timeline, so that dates and times are also captured. The layout of our timeline makes this easy to do.

Timeline Format

A simple way to document and present a timeline is a three-column table to capture the date, time and description. Additional columns can be added as needed to capture more information like the day of the week, information sources or notes. Each entry in the timeline is a horizontal row with a time and/or date. Time is captured in a column with the most recent entry at the top. The date and time scale can vary by year, day, minute or fraction of a second from one row to the next. The requirement is that all entries are in ascending time order down the page – from earliest to latest.


Some groups use a horizontal line for their timeline, like a number line. Graphic designers make some informative and beautifully organized horizontal timelines, but a flat line is not ideal for capturing and editing the information needed in a problem investigation. We’ve found the table to be the simplest way to organize the chronology.

A timeline can begin with one entry that is a short description of any part of a problem. If the date and time are unknown, they can be added later. One convenient aspect of a timeline is that it’s linear. There are no parallel relationships on a timeline. There is an objective straight-line order in which every item fits on a timeline. Each entry has a place – either before, after or between the others. For some incidents, a timeline may be sufficient with just a few lines. The order of the timeline is objective, but the amount of detail included is subjective. It’s based on the magnitude of the incident and how thoroughly you need to record the sequence of events for that issue.

Documentation with Paper, Microsoft Excel®

A timeline can be started on a piece of notebook paper, chart paper or a dry-erase board. To make an electronic file, use the timeline worksheet within our free Cause Mapping® investigation template in Microsoft Excel®. There are several aspects of Excel, along with some handy shortcuts, that make it a good choice for documenting and presenting a timeline. To add more detail, additional rows can easily be inserted between existing entries and additional dates can be added just by dragging the + in the bottom right corner of the selected cell. Even when companies require a particular format or written report in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint, it’s still easier to build the timeline in Excel, and then copy and paste it into the required file.

Timelines in the Incident Review

During incident interviews, a timeline is an effective way to piece together the details of an issue. People familiar with the incident can point out what happened just before or just after something else happened. Reviewing the timeline is an easy way for people to contribute. Each person sees the incident from their unique point of view, but that information can all fit into one comprehensive timeline.

As we dig into a particular issue, it’s normal for people to check their phone to find the date or time of a phone call, text message or email they recall as part of the incident sequence. Often, they’ll say, “I don’t know how helpful I’ll be.” Yet, they add a surprising amount of useful information and provide significant clarification when we step through the timeline in detail. Depending on the nature of the incident, a timeline review can be created one person’s recollection at a time or with the whole group.

Linear Time, Nonlinear Problems

A timeline explains when the different parts of a problem occurred. Because everything is in time order, a timeline makes the problem seem like it occurs as a straight line (linear). But an incident is the result of different causal paths coming together in a particular way. The cause-and-effect relationships within a problem are nonlinear. A timeline does not answer the question, “Why did this happen?” That question requires the incident to be sorted in cause-and-effect order, which is the purpose of our Cause Map™ diagram. By only looking at the timeline, different causal paths are invisible to the problem solver. For this reason, the timeline needs to be built separately from cause and effect. To better understand how cause and effect is essential for understanding how to change outcomes, read “Why You Should Work Your Problems Backward” on the important differences between a cause-and-effect analysis and a timeline.

Benefits of a Timeline

An incident can seem convoluted. A timeline provides an easy way to organize the different parts of an issue in the order in which they happened. Finding that information and piecing it into time order can be an involved process, but it’s an important part of providing a complete explanation. A thorough investigator uses a timeline to produce a thorough investigation. A timeline may start basic, but it’s easy to edit and expand as people clarify and provide more detail. Time order is also particularly helpful for establishing cause and effect since a cause must occur before its effects. These two views, the chronology of the timeline and the causality of the Cause Map diagram, provide a complete understanding of when, how and why things happened. Though the information should be kept separate, they work together for a more complete explanation of the incident.

Experiment with this approach of creating a timeline and a Cause Map diagram on one of your problems by downloading our free Cause Mapping template in Excel. You can see how we document a complete investigation and compare it to what you’re doing now.

Contact us if you need help or would like us to analyze one of your problems to illustrate the importance of distinguishing the difference between chronology and cause and effect.

Register for our upcoming Cause Mapping Root Cause Analysis Online Public Workshop

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