The Science of Troubleshooting

Troubleshooting requires a knowledge of the why and how of proper behavior or operation. I don’t troubleshoot human problems as their how and why is very complex. I do enjoy troubleshooting things mechanical because machines don’t involve emotion in their operation. At least not yet.

Controls have been my specialty for most of my life. The last part of my working career was managing construction projects involving building (the structural kind) energy management systems and making sure they operated as intended. It required intimate knowledge of the why and how mechanical systems operate.

The ability for humans to operate complex systems (operators) and the ability to troubleshoot complex systems (service mechanics) are USUALLY not the same skill set. They can be combined, and that produces the very best operators.

An example is a race car driver. A driver having no intimate knowledge of how the car and engine are designed to operate and only knows what pedals and levers to push and pull, can’t make “in-situ” decision about what to do when the engine starts performing strangely or the handling suddenly changes.

Commercial aircraft have become so complex the pilot (or co-pilot) must look up a problem in a handbook and follow a printed procedure. Knowing every system in a very complex flying machine is not one of their major skills. Can’t imagine a race car driver doing that in a race!

Troubleshooting manuals are common for large involved processes. Most problem solving doesn’t require instant and correct decisions a race car driver must make. A driver needs to be skilled enough about components and systems to describe problems to the advanced-skilled mechanic later, if it is not a survival situation.

I have managed several HVAC service departments and trained many service personnel. Some people never develop the skills to totally understand the why and how HVAC equipment operates. They become what we call “parts changers”. They memorize a repair procedure rather than understanding the operation.

Typically, “parts changers” remember what fixed a condition last time and change the same part to “see if the problem goes away”. No idea of the why and how. They are NOT a skilled troubleshooter.

In the most basic form, the secret to be a first-class troubleshooter is having the complete knowledge of the “science” of how something operates. Look up the meaning of science if you don’t know or fully understand the meaning.

I know a lot of people who claim to “hate science”. Hey! I can understand. It’s not in everyone’s “bag” to love science. Perhaps a poor teacher or whatever excuse. We are all different in our loves. Today it is called strengths and weaknesses. We are best at what we love.

The new age thinking is to not concentrate much on individual weaknesses in things we don’t enjoy, but to improve our existing strengths to make them better. The plan is team work where each member’s strength compliments the others weaknesses.

I wouldn’t assign a “science hater” to be on one of my main troubleshooter teams…

I examine factual science and not the vast assembly of the “what-if” pseudo-science that proliferates today. The “Science Channel” on TV is a total fiasco of real meaning of science. But I digress…

The very best teacher is experience. If I don’t build something from scratch myself, I want to tear it apart and see what makes it work. I want and need that experience to know the why and how of every detail. I can look at a component or an assembly of components, and my thoughts are about why a part is there and what is its function or purpose.

I built dozens of flying model airplanes as a kid and young adult. I moved to building and flying full size home built aircraft (Experimental Aircraft Association). I love aircraft because I know exactly why every part is there and how it works. Flying is the icing on the cake.

That knowledge of all the component details provides me the ability to know when something is wrong and what I can (or can’t) do in emergencies as a work around.

Science is good. It is not all test tubes and laboratories. Science is real world learning, based on fact and understanding why and how. Troubleshooting is a science of learning how things really work.

Good troubleshooters are real scientists, usually without a fancy science-title appended to their name.