Potential pitfalls

Fallacious reasoning and poor interpersonal relations account for more failed or belabored troubleshooting efforts than any other impediments. With this in mind, the aspiring troubleshooter needs to be familiar with a few common troubleshooting mistakes.

Trusting that a brand-new component will always be good. While it is generally true that a new component will be in good condition, it is not always true. It is also possible that a component has been mis-labeled and may have the wrong value (usually this mis-labeling is a mistake made at the point of distribution or warehousing and not at the manufacturer, but again, not always!).

Not periodically checking your test equipment. This is especially true with battery-powered meters, as weak batteries may give spurious readings. When using meters to safety-check for dangerous voltage, remember to test the meter on a known source of voltage both before and after checking the circuit to be serviced, to make sure the meter is in proper operating condition.

Assuming there is only one failure to account for the problem. Single-failure system problems are ideal for troubleshooting, but sometimes failures come in multiple numbers. In some instances, the failure of one component may lead to a system condition that damages other components. Sometimes a component in marginal condition goes undetected for a long time, then when another component fails the system suffers from problems with both components.

Mistaking coincidence for causality. Just because two events occurred at nearly the same time does not necessarily mean one event caused the other! They may be both consequences of a common cause, or they may be totally unrelated! If possible, try to duplicate the same condition suspected to be the cause and see if the event suspected to be the coincidence happens again. If not, then there is either no causal relationship as assumed. This may mean there is no causal relationship between the two events whatsoever, or that there is a causal relationship, but just not the one you expected.

Self-induced blindness. After a long effort at troubleshooting a difficult problem, you may become tired and begin to overlook crucial clues to the problem. Take a break and let someone else look at it for a while. You will be amazed at what a difference this can make. On the other hand, it is generally a bad idea to solicit help at the start of the troubleshooting process. Effective troubleshooting involves complex, multi-level thinking, which is not easily communicated with others. More often than not, "team troubleshooting" takes more time and causes more frustration than doing it yourself. An exception to this rule is when the knowledge of the troubleshooters is complementary: for example, a technician who knows electronics but not machine operation, teamed with an operator who knows machine function but not electronics.

Failing to question the troubleshooting work of others on the same job. This may sound rather cynical and misanthropic, but it is sound scientific practice. Because it is easy to overlook important details, troubleshooting data received from another troubleshooter should be personally verified before proceeding. This is a common situation when troubleshooters "change shifts" and a technician takes over for another technician who is leaving before the job is done. It is important to exchange information, but do not assume the prior technician checked everything they said they did, or checked it perfectly. I've been hindered in my troubleshooting efforts on many occasions by failing to verify what someone else told me they checked.

Being pressured to "hurry up." When an important system fails, there will be pressure from other people to fix the problem as quickly as possible. As they say in business, "time is money." Having been on the receiving end of this pressure many times, I can understand the need for expedience. However, in many cases there is a higher priority: caution. If the system in question harbors great danger to life and limb, the pressure to "hurry up" may result in injury or death. At the very least, hasty repairs may result in further damage when the system is restarted. Most failures can be recovered or at least temporarily repaired in short time if approached intelligently. Improper "fixes" resulting in haste often lead to damage that cannot be recovered in short time, if ever. If the potential for greater harm is present, the troubleshooter needs to politely address the pressure received from others, and maintain their perspective in the midst of chaos. Interpersonal skills are just as important in this realm as technical ability!

Finger-pointing. It is all too easy to blame a problem on someone else, for reasons of ignorance, pride, laziness, or some other unfortunate facet of human nature. When the responsibility for system maintenance is divided into departments or work crews, troubleshooting efforts are often hindered by blame cast between groups. "It's a mechanical problem . . . its an electrical problem . . . its an instrument problem . . ." ad infinitum, ad nauseum, is all too common in the workplace. I have found that a positive attitude does more to quench the fires of blame than anything else.

On one particular job, I was summoned to fix a problem in a hydraulic system assumed to be related to the electronic metering and controls. My troubleshooting isolated the source of trouble to a faulty control valve, which was the domain of the millwright (mechanical) crew. I knew that the millwright on shift was a contentious person, so I expected trouble if I simply passed the problem on to his department. Instead, I politely explained to him and his supervisor the nature of the problem as well as a brief synopsis of my reasoning, then proceeded to help him replace the faulty valve, even though it wasn't "my" responsibility to do so. As a result, the problem was fixed very quickly, and I gained the respect of the millwright.