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Troubleshooting - Theory and Practice

Chapter Outline

Questions to Ask before Proceeding
General Troubleshooting Tips
Specific Troubleshooting Techniques
Likely Failures in Proven Systems
Likely Failures in Unproven Systems
Potential Pitfalls

Perhaps the most valuable but difficult-to-learn skill any technical person could have is the ability to troubleshoot a system. For those unfamiliar with the term, troubleshooting means the act of pinpointing and correcting problems in any kind of system. For an auto mechanic, this means determining and fixing problems in cars based on the car's behavior. For a doctor, this means correctly diagnosing a patient's malady and prescribing a cure. For a business expert, this means identifying the source(s) of inefficiency in a corporation and recommending corrective measures.

Troubleshooters must be able to determine the cause or causes of a problem simply by examining its effects. Rarely does the source of a problem directly present itself for all to see. Cause/effect relationships are often complex, even for seemingly simple systems, and often the proficient troubleshooter is regarded by others as something of a miracle-worker for their ability to quickly discern the root cause of a problem. While some people are gifted with a natural talent for troubleshooting, it is a skill that can be learned like any other.

Sometimes the system to be analyzed is in so bad a state of affairs that there is no hope of ever getting it working again. When investigators sift through the wreckage of a crashed airplane, or when a doctor performs an autopsy, they must do their best to determine the cause of massive failure after the fact. Fortunately, the task of the troubleshooter is usually not this grim. Typically, a misbehaving system is still functioning to some degree and may be stimulated and adjusted by the troubleshooter as part of the diagnostic procedure. In this sense, troubleshooting is a lot like scientific method: determining cause/effect relationships by means of live experimentation.

Like science, troubleshooting is a mixture of standard procedure and personal creativity. There are certain procedures employed as tools to discern cause(s) from effects, but they are impotent if not coupled with a creative and inquisitive mind. In the course of troubleshooting, the troubleshooter may have to invent their own specific technique -- adapted to the particular system they're working on -- and/or modify tools to perform a special task. Creativity is necessary in examining a problem from different perspectives: learning to ask different questions when the "standard" questions don't lead to fruitful answers.

If there is one personality trait I've seen positively associated with excellent troubleshooting more than any other, its technical curiosity. People fascinated by learning how things work, and who aren't discouraged by a challenging problem, tend to be better at troubleshooting than others. Richard Feynman, the late physicist who taught at Caltech for many years, illustrates to me the ultimate troubleshooting personality. Reading any of his (auto)biographical books is both educating and entertaining, and I recommend them to anyone seeking to develop their own scientific reasoning/troubleshooting skills.

Lessons In Electric Circuits copyright (C) 2000-2020 Tony R. Kuphaldt, under the terms and conditions of the CC BY License.

See the Design Science License (Appendix 3) for details regarding copying and distribution.

Revised July 25, 2007

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