Boost Troubleshooting Skills at Your Site

EP Editorial Staff | February 13, 2017


Consider this advice for upping your organization’s troubleshooting game.

By David Mayfield

This is an expanded version of the article that ran in the February 2017 issue of Maintenance Technology.

Effective and efficient troubleshooting of problems is considered an impossible dream in many facilities, especially small operations with only a few maintenance staffers. With a well-planned approach, that doesn’t have to be the case. Some basic requirements are listed here. Your site may require others.

• You must have qualified personnel available, including, but not limited to, technicians, mechanics, and electricians, whether employed in-house or on a contract basis.

• You must have plant documentation such as machine drawings/electrical diagrams so that parts and conditions can be checked against correct performance.

• You must have appropriate tools, instruments, and test equipment so evaluations can be accurately made.

• You must be able to obtain “fit for duty” parts and materials in a timely fashion so that after the work is completed, reliable service can be expected.

In addition, your chosen troubleshooting methodology must be used throughout your operations, and all personnel must be able to assist by being able to scrutinize the data and what is known. This calls for a “template” approach so that all stakeholders can see what is and what isn’t known.

Successful troubleshooting in plants may require a shift in management’s thinking regarding support of reliability and maintenance efforts, particularly where management has had little or no on-the-floor experience. Even today, many plant mechanics and technicians are led to believe—or have been taught—that their job is to “fix” a problem and get the equipment/process running again, ASAP. (It’s also worth noting that many tradespersons still mistakenly believe they will be out of a job if they actually stop a problem from recurring.)

In his Feb. 2017 “Uptime” column, contributing editor Bob Williamson notes that troubleshooting is not necessarily problem solving. Still, enhancement of troubleshooting skills can lead to greater productivity, longer equipment service life, safer plant environments, and happier workforces.

The basics

The basic troubleshooting process starts by determining how a piece of equipment or process should work when it’s at 100% and carefully contrasting that with what the equipment or process is doing when it’s experiencing a problem. The next step is to determine how the change occurred and, subsequently, recommend and put into place, solutions to remedy it.

The first part—knowing proper performance—can be challenging for poorly trained staff or those who have been unable to obtain accurate data. To overcome those challenges, try these tactics:

• Provide weekly training sessions for those with gaps in their skills and knowledge—and make sure their previous training experience included sessions presented by OEM technicians.

• Install special hardware items in a “games room” to train and challenge personnel. (No plant downtime is required. And, if equipment vendors provide surplus hardware, costs are minimal.)

The next part of the process requires a template with places to identify each pertinent fact regarding the trouble/problem. These facts include, among other things, information on the production line, piece of machinery, component, product, time, shift, what should be happening, and all the details of what is happening. The ability to accurately compare the good with the bad will often clearly identify the cause, although preventing the cause (or root cause) is another issue.

Posting this template prominently (in paper and/or electronic format) and allowing it to be updated when new information is known will point to two important things:

• that the problem is being dealt with in a sensible manner

• that anyone who has valid data can add their 10-cents worth.

For a long time, knowledge was said to be power, but that concept, at least in some cases, has been faulty. Real power comes from being right: curing breakdowns, eliminating downtime, and using good materials properly.


Although a plant-wide “master” troubleshooting template can be created, the designer must allow local variations in application. As an example, refer to the accompanying sample template here (offered as an addition to the version of this article published in the Feb. 2017 print edition of Maintenance Technology).

Use this sample troubleshooting template as model and customize it to meet your own operation's needs.

Use this sample troubleshooting template as a model and customize it to meet the needs of your own operations.

While this sample troubleshooting template is somewhat similar to an example in the excellent book, The New Rational Manager, by Kepner and Tregoe (see Timeless-Resources Sidebar), various versions, including those from the U.S. military, maritime operations, and aircraft industries, have also lent their influence to those used by today’s successful troubleshooters throughout all sectors. Thus, consider the accompanying example as a model t customize for your own plant or department.

Keep in mind that it’s critical to check all information recorded in a troubleshooting template for accuracy, especially where a problem seems to defy solutions. For those occasions, i.e., when personnel are banging their heads against the wall, you’ll want to have “serious problem audit” waiting in the wings.


It’s important to note that the major difference between accurate troubleshooting and the version performed at many facilities boils down to understanding that equipment and processes merely could be—but aren’t necessarily—associated with a specific problem. This reality check helps keep personnel from making assumptions that lead them astray. These steps are essential elements in the analysis stage:

1. Note the symptoms as described by operators or others.

2. State the correct performance—what should be happening.

3. State the “is” performance—what is happening and what is different from normal.

4. State the problem or defect—the difference between what should be happening and what is happening.

5. Identify exactly where, and precisely when a problem manifested and, most important, what, if anything, changed.

6. Measure downtime, such as the value of scrap, loss, and dollars.

7. Obtain history of previous trouble and then identify an expert or experts in this area.

8. Isolate problems into what department, what line, what machine, what system (electrical, mechanical, pneumatic, printing, etc.), what part, and what item, i.e. what is involved.

9. Identify what is not involved, but could be, or should be.

10. Note what is distinctive about the “is” and “is not” items.

11. Identify the changes that affect “is” and “is not” items.

Don’t forget that change is the cause of all problems. Even when something has always been a problem, there will have been a change from what was originally intended (refer again to Bob Williamson’s Feb. 2017 “Uptime” column, as well as his “ISO 55000” column in the same issue of Maintenance Technology).

When all is said and done

Successful troubleshooters know it’s important to constantly ask questions, including embarrassing ones about long-term problems. (Example: “Did it ever work as promised?”) After all, there are many situations where original performance specifications aren’t met from day one.

For problems that seem to resist solutions, asking “why” more than once is a time-tested tool. This calls for stubbornness on the troubleshooter’s part, but may be the only way to unravel information.

When a problem might be related to personnel, troubleshooters ask different questions.

Let’s say an assembler who is making errors that require rework is in danger of being replaced. Before taking that action, it would be important to determine if the individual could do the task correctly if his or her life depended on it. If so, ask why that’s not happening? If the person acknowledges not being able to do the task correctly, ask what’s standing in the way. That’s real troubleshooting. MT

Timeless Resources: Reading Recommendations
For Building Better Troubleshooters

One challenge that plant personnel often face is that of applying their whole mind to a problem. Doing so requires a mindset that’s prepared by the use of both brain hemispheres. The challenge is that many people, including those in the industrial trades, haven’t learned how to switch on their “thinking caps” with their “right” brains.

In her best-selling book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (originally published in 1979, in hardcover, by Tarcher, and now offered in a 4th edition), Betty Edwards explains significant benefits from accessing both sides of one’s brain. (From a personal standpoint, during my many years as a vocational educator, I never ceased to marvel at the dramatic improvements in students’ performance when they harnessed that ability.)

How does the right brain aid the problem solving process? It provides clarity of thinking, allowing a more complete insight to the factors involved, and often the ability to identify misleading or conflicting information. For example, being able to sketch out (draw) physical parts of the problem is of great value to any technician, but being able to mentally walk through the hardware or circuitry provides impressive insight to what is going on.

More timeless must-reads

Edward de Bono’s book Six Thinking Hats (originally published in 1985, in hardcover, by Little, Brown and Co.), discusses a brain process that promotes creative thinking among groups of people. It’s a valuable resource if some on your staff have difficulty in considering other people’s ideas, benefits, or potential problems.

When it comes to building better troubleshooters, some mention must also be made of smart practices by organizations that have broken the mold and outperformed their competition. In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman (originally published in 1982, in hardcover, by Harper & Row) highlights many examples of those who prevailed (and how).

Dr. Shigeo Shingo’s 1985 book, A Revolution in Manufacturing: The S.M.E.D System (Productivity Press), is yet another valuable resource for those who want to grow troubleshooting skills. This seminal work, of course, is a must-read for anyone who manages plants where setups and changeovers are performed.

Not to be overlooked

• The New Rational Manager, by Charles H. Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe (originally published in 1981, in hardcover, by Princeton Research Press)
Analyzing Performance Problems, by Dr. Robert F. Mager and Peter (originally published in 1970, in hardcover, by Fearon Pitman Publishers)
Optimum Brain Power: A Total Program for Increasing Your Intelligence, by Miriam Ehrenburg and Otto Ehrenberg (originally published in 1984, in hardcover, by Dodd, Mead)

— D. M.

Retired industry veteran David Mayfield spent decades on plant floors and in the vocational training arena. He began his career as an apprentice tool & die maker in the aerospace industry, then served in Britain’s Royal Air Force as an avionics technician for five years. Later, upon emigrating to Canada, he held various engineering and management roles in a number of manufacturing operations.

Over time, because of Mayfield’s involvement in apprenticeship development, he was recruited by the Ontario College Ministry to establish new trade apprenticeships for industrial millwrights, packaging machine mechanics, and multi-skilled industrial technicians, among others. He then went on to become a teaching professor for Canada’s Humber College (Toronto, Ontario), where he created Packaging Machine and Industrial Mechanic programs for the Province of Ontario, and wrote training, testing, and certification materials for various other public and private entities.

Mayfield taught on the Humber campus and in dozens of plants for 34 years, and after retiring, 10 years ago, continued to provide consulting services for Ontario’s packaging industry for five more years. Email him directly at




View Comments

  • Ernie Marks

    I enjoyed the article, and most of it rings true, especially the notion that management needs to change so that good troubleshooting practices are allowed and encouraged.

    I would like to add, though, that the article misses one key element in the process. This element is how the system does what it does. Yes, you must know what the system does so you can identify what it isn’t doing, but how will you find the bad part if you don’t know how the system works?

    For example, you know that the system should reach a temperature set point that is operator adjustable between 180 degrees F and 230 degrees F, and hold that set point within 10 degrees F. How does the system do that? How does it perform the heating? How does it measure temperature? How does it read and compare set point with actual temperature? Unless you know these design related details, any symptom will evade the trouble shooter.

    This lack of understanding is often how trouble shooters get into trouble. They may know the basics, of operation and what modules perform basic functions, but they do not know enough detail to do anything more than basic module swaps. So swap happy trouble shooters are common. I call it the “swap til you drop” syndrome.

    Yes, training is needed for evaluating performance so good trouble shooting processes can be performed, but without a technical understanding of how the system works, real trouble shooting will not occur. Training must include electro-mechanical fundamentals and “how it works” training that helps the trouble shooter correctly identify the failed component.

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