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Troubleshooting: The Art of Maintenance

We’ve all seen it; the engineer or technician knows his stuff but somehow, he just can’t seem to get things repaired or resolve problems. What is it?

loadstandcroppedThe ART of troubleshooting is actually more difficult to teach than electrical or mechanical theory. While anyone can become a better troubleshooter, there seem to be some common attributes of those who become great troubleshooters.


I’ve seen people with confidence that were not good troubleshooters, but I’ve never met a good troubleshooter who wasn’t confident. In general, the person that expects to resolve a problem is the person that will solve the problem.

In the earlier days of my career, I spent years performing field service on electronic drive systems. Field Service can be intimidating. I recall flying into a distant city, to be picked up at the airport and given a police escort to the plant, where a critical line was down. The plant manager met me saying, “I’m so glad you’re here, and am really curious about how you’re going to resolve this.” I was thinking “Well, I’m pretty curious about that myself!”

As I developed confidence, I became a better and better troubleshooter. I’d go places knowing that if ANYONE could get this machine going, I could. Confidence:I don’t think you can be much of a troubleshooter without it.

This isn’t to advocate arrogance. Confidence is a positive mindset, borne of experience, and is comforting to a customer. A confident person doesn’t think he knows it all, is humble, and is willing to learn.

Arrogance is the perception that no one can teach you anything. It’s often borne of experience as well, but the difference is the arrogant person thinks they’ve arrived, are not humble at all, and look down their noses at people whom they feel lack their experience.

This causes issues, not the least of which is an annoyed customer. I had a friend in Texas who used to say that “everyone knows something I don’t know.”

Be confident, but avoid arrogance.


Lack of organization when troubleshooting will produce havoc. “Do no harm” is a great tenet to adopt. Wires that are removed must be marked. You must know whether or not you’ve already changed a particular circuit board, and when changing parts, you must install them correctly. All of us with technical troubleshooting backgrounds know that loose wires and connections are a primary cause for failures, and are careful to ensure that any connections we make or break while installing parts are properly reconnected. Same with changing programming parameters; it’s a great idea to save all of the original parameters prior to troubleshooting. That way, at least, you can easily get back to the starting point.

I’ve followed other repair people into situations in which the original problem was long ago resolved. But during the process, due to disorganization, additional problems were created and the machine remained down. Troubleshootersmust be organized.

Seeing the Big Picture

Engineers and Technicians sometimes tend to be very myopic. “I was called here to work on this, and this is what I’m working on” is the attitude. However, especially in industrial system environments, it’s helpful to look at the bigger picture. That can sometimes mean just talking to the machine operator. “Well, we cleaned the motor last night before we went home.” “Hmmm.. let’s take a quick look at that motor before I disassemble the drive.”

Open Mind

This may seem a strange attribute, but anyone that approaches a problem with a dogmatic mindset such that he or she ignores the actual evidence is going to have problems.

The human mind is a very peculiar organ, and we so often “see” only what we expect to see. If your “guts” tell you what the problem is, fine, spend a few moments and check it out. However, if that doesn’t do it, then you have to back away from your assumption and open your mind. Poor troubleshooters just keep plugging away, certain they’re on the right track. Good troubleshooters don’t ignore the evidence otherwise.


People that won’t take the time to learn their craft are never going to be good troubleshooters. There are no shortcuts, and experience alone, without study, usually won’t cut it.

Keep it Simple

Look for the simple things first. Another very peculiar human trait is to always assume the most complicated thing imaginable as the reason why the machine is down. I remember the embarrassment of trying to get a system going, with my instruments all attached, my mind thinking high technical thoughts, using all of my great skill, and an operator strolling over and saying, “is that red wire supposed to be lying in the bottom of the cabinet?” Of course, it wasn’t, it had come loose, and that’s why the machine was down. MANY ELECTRONIC PROBLEMS ARE DUE TO LOOSE OR DIRTY CONNECTIONS.. look for the simple things first. Save yourself some embarrassment.

Remember, you’re supposed to be confident, not stupid!

Eddie Mayfield


2 Responses

  1. Good story. People who troubleshoot equipment sometimes are quick to discount the thoughts of the people who actually use it on a day to day basis. Conversely some operators try to tell the tech what is wrong, even if it has been ruled out.

    Techs should keep a level head, ask for the symptoms and follow their instincts.

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