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Troubleshooting Tips

Before I ever wrote a computer program or user manual, I repaired audio electornics down to the component level. The troubleshooting skills I learned there made the transition to computers easy. My knowledge of effective troubleshooting procedures has brought me more repeat business than any other skill. This web page is adapted from my book, Troubleshooting: Tools, Tips and Techniques.

Common troubleshooting myths

"Great troubleshooters are born, not taught"
BS! Troubleshooting is a set of procedures, priorities, mental tools and attitudes that anyone can learn.

"Either you can troubleshoot or you can't"
Wrong again! Just like any ability, there's a spectrum. You can always get better. Imagine how silly this myth would sound if you substitute "play basketball" for the word "troubleshoot".

"I can troubleshoot -- I do it every day"
See previous myth.

"Troubleshooting is machine dependent"
True only to a small degree. However, the procedures, priorities, mental tools, and attitudes apply no matter what machine, system, or entity you're troubleshooting.

"Troubleshooting is fixing machines"
False! You can troubleshoot a company's organization. Substitute the word "reengineering" for "troubleshooting" and see how silly the myth sounds.

"Troubleshooting is for techies"
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Substitute the word "problem solving" for "troubleshooting", and see how silly this myth sounds.

"Troubleshooting isn't as important as other skills"
Tell that to your CEO when a mission-critical system crashes and revenue stops.

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Follow this 10 step troubleshooting sequence

  1. Get into the troubleshooting frame of mind
  2. Get a complete and accurate symptom description
  3. Make a damage control plan
  4. Reproduce the symptom
  5. Do the appropriate general maintenance
  6. Narrow it down to the root cause
  7. Repair or replace the defective component
  8. Test
  9. Take pride in your solution
  10. Prevent future occurrance of this problem

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Use these four troubleshooting tools

Mental Model
Know the system as components and relationships between components.

Divide and Conquer
Each test should nearly as possible divide the remaining search area in half. This is tempered by factors of ease and likelihood.

The Attitude
Maintain super-rationality. Don't try to fix it, just try to narrow it down.

Fix the Right Problem
The quality control component of troubleshooting. Make sure you eliminated the right symptom, fixed the right cause, and fixed the problem right.

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Copyright (C)1995, 1996 by Steve Litt. See the copyright notice for any restrictions on access and reuse of information provided in the Litt's Tips web pages.