What Is A Waterfall (Bridge) Chart

By Chris Newman •  Updated: 03/11/15 •  4 min read
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What Is A Waterfall Chart?

The main goal of a Waterfall chart is to walk the audience through how one data point grew or declined over a period of time. This "data walk" allows someone to quickly see which sub-categories within the data point improved and which ones declined (aka variances). Let's analyze a simple example to see how this works.

A Simple Example

The Corpus company has sales offices all throughout the United States.  These sales offices are grouped into three regions: East, West, & Central.  The CFO of Corpus wants to add a chart to his presentation to the Board of Directors that displays how the sales teams performed over the past two months and where efforts should be made to improve sales. 

Analyze Waterfall Bridge Graph - Example Data

From the above data set, we can see the East sales group did $200 worse month over month.  The other two groups increased their sales numbers. Let's see how this data can translate over to a waterfall chart

Analyze Waterfall Bridge Graph - Mapping Data to Chart

Once you understand where the numbers show up on the Waterfall chart, it is easy to tell which region(s) did worse from January to February and which regions did better (the green and red colors help out too!).

Let’s Tell The Full Story

Understanding Data Walk Graph - Rate Analysis

I think it is important to go one step further in this example to show the percent change month over month in our Waterfall chart.  This is because showing a variance might not tell the whole picture if you don't know how big of a jump that change was.

Let's take the East region as an example.  With the data listed above, the East region went from $400 in sales to $200.  This could raise a red flag to the CFO as sales dropped by 50%!  But what if sales dropped from $800 to $600?  That might not warrant much concern as sales only dropped by 25%.  

Now, this is just a high-level example where as in the real world variances of 50% or 25% might have your CFO fuming! But hopefully, you understand the concept of telling a complete story with your data.

Understanding Data Walk Chart

Now You Know!

Hopefully, by reading through this post you are now a little more comfortable analyzing these types of charts.  I know when I first saw one during my rookie year as an analyst, I had no idea what was going on with all those floating bars! But once you know how to analyze Waterfall charts, you can see how extremely useful they are for summarizing variances at a glance.  

My current company uses these charts every month to show the variances between our Plan/Actuals and Prior Year/Actuals.  I'm curious if your company is using these charts and if so, what kinds of data does your company use them to display?  Leave a comment below and let me know!

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Chris Newman

Chris Newman

Chris is a finance professional and Excel MVP recognized by Microsoft since 2016. With his expertise, he founded TheSpreadsheetGuru blog to help fellow Excel users, where he shares his vast creative solutions & expertise. In addition, he has developed over 7 widely-used Excel Add-ins that have been embraced by individuals and companies worldwide.