A lot of people think of “writing” as presenting messages, but it’s more than that.

Yes, “writing” is mechanics (punctuation, grammar, spelling, etc.); it is words (chosen for accuracy, tone, and effect); it is sentences (the way readers breathe as they read); it is paragraphs (little houses built of sentences); it is document design (visual structure for the reader); it is organization (logical structure for the reader). BUT…it is also CONTENT (answers to the reader’s questions about the ISSUE in question).

An important part of evaluative content is a set of critical-thinking tools known to performance auditors as THE 4 ELEMENTS OF A FINDING. These include criteria, condition, cause, and effect. These elements allow a writer to evaluate anything and, if necessary, make a compelling recommendation.

Here’s a description of this set of critical-thinking tools, which is best thought of as a three-step evaluation process. Everyone should know about the 4 Elements; all students in any writing class should learn to use them. (They are actually far more helpful for evaluative thinking/writing than the more common 5Ws from journalism: who, what, when, where, and why.”)

As you’ll see, each of the four elements is itself a question. Together the elements/questions allow us to determine if things are as they should be, and, if not, how to fix them.

The 4 Elements of a Finding Are an Invaluable 3-STEP Critical-Thinking Pathway

To evaluate anything (and recommend changes when something isn’t right), we need to ask three questions in the following sequence.

STEP 1: Is there a “GAP”?

This first question requires the first two of the 4 Elements of a Finding: Criteria and Condition.

CRITERIA answers the question HOW SHOULD IT BE?

Criteria comprise our evaluative standards. These can be legal requirements (laws, regulations, policies, etc.) or standards derived from comparisons (industry standards, best practices, models, expert opinion, etc.). Evaluative standards, you might say, are the yardstick by which we can measure whatever we’re evaluating.

CONDITION answers the question HOW IS IT?

Condition is a description of the way the thing we’re evaluating actually is. It can be thought of as actual performance. More simply, it can be thought of as “what is.” It’s important to remember that statements of condition never express value-judgments; they never state whether something is good or not. They just describe what actually is.

STEP 1 (Is there a GAP?) requires you to compare criteria to condition. You might think of this step as a simple subtraction problem: CRITERIA - CONDITION = GAP. (The GAP can be positive or negative.)

Here are some examples of Step 1.

A. You want to know if an Italian restaurant is “good.” You gather your criteria (evaluative standards) for all aspects of an Italian restaurant. You go to the restaurant (one or more times) and try the food. You compare your standards to the actual experience. You determine the GAP: worse than expected (our expectations reflect our evaluative standards/criteria)…as expected…better than expected.

B. You want to know if your cholesterol levels are okay. You find out the medical criteria that describe the range for “normal cholesterol levels.” You get blood work to determine your cholesterol number. You determine the GAP: high…okay…low.

C. You want to know if your marriage is okay. You gather your criteria for a successful marriage. You compare how the marriage actually is to determine the GAP. Great? Okay? Not great?

D. You want to know if a federal program complies with federal laws. You gather the legal criteria. You describe actual performance. You compare the two to discover any GAP. In compliance/not in compliance.

The first step is the “analytical” step. Once you determine the gap, you move to step 2.

STEP 2: Is the “GAP” a Problem?

This second question requires the third of the 4 Elements of a Finding: Effect.

Effect answers the question Where’s the “hurt”? It can also be thought of as the impact, the consequences, the significance of the GAP.

Unless the GAP found in step 1 has a significant effect (significant consequences), it will not rise to the level of an actual problem. To be a problem (something worth fixing), the GAP must have some impact.

Step 2 is the determination of the impact. That impact could be positive if the GAP is positive. Or it could be negative if the GAP is negative.

Here are some examples of EFFECT.

A. The Italian restaurant had much slower than expected service. The food came out lukewarm. The meatballs were too salty. The tiramisu was overly sweet. And the food was very expensive. The “effects” of these gaps are that you did not enjoy the Italian restaurant. All the salt gave you a headache.

B. Your doctor tells you that your cholesterol level is 100 points higher than normal. The “effects” may not be felt now. But you may experience problems later: a heart attack or a stroke.

C. You and your spouse conclude that you don’t spend as much quality time together as you need to and that you fight too often. The effects of such GAPS might be anger, sadness, and anxiety.

D. The federal program is supposed to submit progress reports every six months, but it has submitted only one such report in two years. This lack of compliance could mean the federal program is not working well but nobody knows because the progress is not being monitored. Money may have been misspent. Those who require the services from the federal program may not be having their needs met.

The second step is the “persuasive” step. You cannot move people to take action unless they are persuaded that the current state of affairs has significant negative effects.

Once you determine the effect, you move to step 3.

STEP 3: What Caused the Problem?

This third question requires the fourth of the 4 Elements of a Finding: Cause.

Cause answers the question Why is the problem occurring?

If the GAP has a significant effect so that it becomes a real problem, that problem can’t be addressed until the cause(s) of the problem is determined. In this step, it’s important to distinguish between surface cause and root cause.

Surface causes don’t lead to lasting improvement. For instance, the surface cause of a restaurant’s bad service and poor food might be too few employees turning up for work on a given night. But a truly good restaurant has planned for such contingencies and can staff a restaurant properly every night. The root cause for the problem restaurant might be a lack of contingency planning.

To get closer to “root cause,” TOYOTA instituted a practice known as the 5 WHYs. If you find a problem, ask why it’s happening five times. The answer to the fifth WHY will be close to root cause.

Another set of typical causes of problems lies in “internal controls.” Internal controls are discussed and described by The GAO in its GREEN BOOK (https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-704G). While “internal controls” may sound wonky, it turns out that any system (a restaurant, health care, a marriage, a federal program, etc.,) requires a functioning set of internal controls to ensure that the desired results are attained. Risks to the system must be discovered. Controls must be put into use to alleviate the risks. All involved must know about and be trained to implement the control activities. Finally, the system must be constantly monitored to make sure control activities are working and desired results are being achieved.

Any failures in the internal controls to any system are likely causes of problems…often the root causes of problems.

The idea of CAUSE should not be viewed in a simplistic way. Usually, any problem is “caused” by several contributing factors. Problems are the emergence (emergency) of these contributing factors. We often say a situation that caused a significant problem was a “perfect storm” of contributing factors.

It’s tempting in our push-button world to look for one-to-one relationships of cause and effect. But such is rarely the case. Even when we find correlations between two things, we can’t assume that one causes the other. Just because I do my “Mad Elephant Dance” in the front yard every morning doesn’t mean it’s the reason we don’t have any mad elephants in the neighborhood.

Here are some examples of cause.

A. Service is slow because management has not hired enough waiters for peak hours. Meatballs are too salty because the chef is using the wrong recipe. The tiramisu is too sweet because the cook added more sugar than required and nobody bothered to taste the final result before it was served. The prices are too high because the owner needs a new Ferrari.

B. Cholesterol is too high because the patient eats too much dairy and red meat, exercises infrequently, and has a family history of high cholesterol.

C. The spouses are having a bumpy patch because both are working too many hours, because one is nursing a resentment from two years before, because they’ve stopped truly listening to each other.

D. The federal program is out of compliance because of poor internal controls: the employee responsible for the progress reports has been forced to take a year’s leave and nobody has been required to pick up the slack.

The element of CAUSE is the diagnostic step in the evaluative critical-thinking process. And once the problem has been accurately diagnosed and the true contributing factors have been identified, recommendations for corrective action can be made.

All recommendations should be tracked back to identified causes. Recommendations that do not address real causes won’t work.

Beware of recommendations that don’t track back to causes. Why did the Titanic sink? It hit an iceberg. Recommendation? Don’t hit icebergs…not helpful. Ask why five times and see what you come up with.


In such a short posting, I’m not able to go into a lot of detail about the 4 Elements. But it is a very powerful 3-Step evaluative process. It is part of any writing that requires evaluation. And…we should all know it, practice it, and teach it to our students.

Let me know if you have questions.

This topic and many others are covered in more detail in my 200-page ebook, Mindful Writing at Work (lots of pictures). It’s $9.97 and available here: https://qcgwrite.com/mindful-writing-at-work

Thanks for your contribution to the cause of better workplace writing. Semper cogitare sollicite.

Let me know what you think: Harvey@QCGwrite.com