Troubleshooters.Com Presents

Troubleshooting Professional Magazine

Volume 10 Issue 2, Spring, 2006
  Expect Excellence -- and Get It!
Copyright (C) 2006 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

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“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months, and years they spend preparing for it." -- T. Alan Armstrong.


Editor's Desk

By Steve Litt
Dear Steve,

My car was overheating so I my mechanic replaced the thermostat, so that didn't help. Then he rodded out the radiator, but that didn't help. Then he replaced the water pump, but the problem was still there. So he replaced the radiator, but no joy. I've spent almost a thousand dollars and my car still overheats. What should I do?

I get emails like this every month. What should the reader do?

The short answer is simple -- get a new mechanic. The current one adheres to diagnosis by guesswork.

Then you might ask me -- but how do I pick a new mechanic? After all, a lot of them are like the one described in the first paragraph.

That's a good question, and the topic of this month's Troubleshooting Professional Magazine.

Let me make it clear, however, that I'm not singling out the automotive repair industry. Extended Troubleshooting bungles occur in Information Technology. In office machine repair. In computer repair. If something needs repair, there are bunglers out there waiting to screw it up. And there are also professionals waiting to fix it right the first time.

If you need something repaired and for whatever reason can't do it yourself, this issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine guides you in picking a winner to do the repair, and giving that winner every opportunity to do an excellent job.

So kick back, relax, and read how to be served with excellence. And remember, if you're a Troubleshooter, this is your magazine.
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.  You can email Steve here.

What Excellence Looks Like

By Steve Litt
To find someone excellent, you must know what excellence looks like. On one level the answer is trivial -- excellence is a job done quickly to specifications (or better), for a reasonable price. In the case of troubleshooting, the "specifications" are simply having the symptom removed without subsequent related problems.

The trick, of course, is talking to several troubleshooters and figuring out which ones will do an excellent job. What does an excellent Troubleshooter look like?

The answer turns out to be simple enough. The excellent Troubleshooter troubleshoots using a process similar to the Universal Troubleshooting Process. The consumer thoroughly understanding the Universal Troubleshooting Process has two huge advantages:
  1. Evaluating the Troubleshooter: Speaking with the prospective Troubleshooter, she can evaluate the extent to which the Troubleshooter conforms to a valid troubleshooting process.
  2. Helping the Troubleshooter: She can help the Troubleshooter by providing a concise and complete symptom description. In the case of an intermittent she can look for, find and report a reproduction procedure.
The quickest and easiest way to learn the Universal Troubleshooting Process is to read the book Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.

Evaluating the Troubleshooter

The first hint of quality comes from looking around the shop. Is there equipment all over the place? If so, they're not performing UTP (Universal Troubleshooting Process) step 1, Prepare. Not a good sign. Are there arguments between employees, or employees and customers? Team troubleshooting is probably not practiced here. Do they tell you it will be three days until they can get to it? They have a throughput problem.

Now you're ready for the Big Kahune of Troubleshooter evaluation -- the symptom description. I once gave a full typewritten page symptom description to a garage. The counter guy thanked me for being so complete. Later the tech who worked on the problem thanked me, and said he wished all his other customers did the same thing. This garage did a great job.

Another time I gave a full page description to a different garage. The counter guy asked me a couple questions, wrote a sentence or two on the repair ticket, and threw my symptom description in the garbage. I can't tell you whether they did a good job or not -- I walked. If they're not interested in the observations of someone who uses the car 24/7, but instead are willing to use their own valuable time to try to recreate the knowledge I already told them, they're going to be slow and inaccurate.

To a certain extent you can judge the shop by suggesting troubleshooting techniques. This must be done carefully, however, because every Tom Dick and Harry thinks they're smarter than the Troubleshooter, and the Troubleshooter's response is usually "then why aren't you fixing it?" In certain cases though, suggesting a troubleshooting technique can screen out complete incompetents.

For instance, one time my car key got stuck in the ignition with the motor running. You could start the engine, but couldn't turn it off with the key. I turned it off by removing spark plugs one at a time, because I sure didn't want to unplug the battery on a running car, because that can cause thousands of dollars in damage. Yeah, I got shocked doing it, but not badly -- sparkplugs are all voltage and very little current.

So I brought it to a garage, and before leaving it with them, asked the service manager not to turn it off by disconnecting the battery. He asked me how else I expected them to turn it off, and I said by removing spark plug wires. He said no, disconnecting the battery is not harmful, and he didn't want his techs getting shocked. I thanked him and drove to a garage willing to do it the right way.

Helping the Troubleshooter

Everyone with an easy job please raise your hand.

Hey, I don't see any hands.

There are no easy jobs. Troubleshooting is no exception. Troubleshooters desperately need the user's help.

The number one help your Troubleshooter needs is a complete and accurate symptom description. WHAT indicates to you that there's a malfunction? WHEN does it seem to occur? HOW can the symptom be reproduced? You can see a complete list of symptom description questions at

Another help is a helpful attitude. An understanding that 50% to 99% of the job is finding the root cause. Often, especially with computers, actually fixing the root cause can be trivial. It's finding the root cause that's tough. Therefore, don't ask your Troubleshooter to diagnose it free of charge. Don't ask "how much just to look at it?". Diagnostics is much more than "looking at it". Don't be surprised if she charges you a refused estimate charge if you decide not to go ahead with the repair once she's isolated the root cause enough to give you an estimate. Someone must pay her for her labor in figuring it out.

Occasionally the problem will take an extremely long time to diagnose. If you understand the Universal Troubleshooting Process, you'll be able to tell whether the diagnostic delay was due to bad troubleshooting, or a tough problem. If it was a tough problem, don't begrudge the Troubleshooter a little extra money, over and above the initial estimate, for her time. For an example of a job so difficult that I gladly paid extra for diagnosis, see
Steve Litt is the creator of the Universal Troubleshooting Process. You can email Steve here.

Keep Your Troubleshooter Honest

By Steve Litt
Before any repair commences, ask your automotive tech to save the old parts for you. You won't be able to re-use the old parts, and very likely you won't even be able to see whether they're bad. You probably won't even know for sure if they came off your car. What asking for the parts does is to put your Troubleshooter on notice notice not to charge you for parts not installed.

Is your Troubleshooter a crook? Probably not. It's my belief that Troubleshooters exhibiting a pattern and practice of dishonesty are rare. However, I think many Troubleshooters have, on rare occasions, "fudged" on the repair invoice a little bit, usually in response to a repair that went slower than usual. By asking for your old parts back, you minimize the chance of fudging.

Be aware that the prices of some parts, such as alternators, include a discount for return of the old alternator to the rebuilding shop. In such cases you'll usually forego getting the old part, although sometimes it's practical to at least see the old part before it's sent back to the rebuilding facility.

None of this applies if you're an "internal customer" of the Troubleshooter. In that case, your company would dictate policies regarding parts.
Steve Litt is the author of Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist.  You can email Steve here.

Eliminate Finger Pointing

By Steve Litt 
When I programmed for a medical management company, a customer couldn't boot their computer. The hardware guy said it was software. I went out and saw it wasn't software, so I threw it back in the hardware guy's lap. This went on a couple more times, and then the boss said "I want both you and the hardware guy to go out there, and neither of you can come back until it's fixed."

We both went out there, we both did the diagnostics we knew how to do, and finally found out that when you type in the boot device as part of the bootup, upper case letters must be used. It wasn't hardware or software -- it was user error, but we both made the same error. Only when we put our heads together and worked from the same set of diagnostic tests was the problem solved.

Finger pointing can stretch troubleshooting out by days or weeks. If you demand excellence, find a way to eliminate it.
Steve Litt is the author of four books on the subject of troubleshooting. You can email Steve here.


By Steve Litt 
Excellence seldom springs from nastiness. The boss constantly criticizing his flock will know no excellence -- only the absense of mediocrity (maybe). Real praise for a job well done promotes excellence. Along with the praise, suggestions for doing it even better next time contribute to continuous improvement. Those suggestions should be a part of a two way dialog -- it's entirely possible the employee has considered the suggestion already and rejected for a reason the boss doesn't see. Boss and employee can talk to determine if the roadblock can be overcome.

Encourage communications between employees. I've found the best ideas come from real brainstorming sessions (not yes-men applauding the ideas of their leader, but real brainstorming sessions).

And let me repeat one more time -- the communication between Troubleshooter and User while acquiring a symptom description is everything.
Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process Courseware.  Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.


By Steve Litt
If there's one thing I could drum into every organization, it would be to respect the intelligence of its members. No programs of the month. No treasure hunts. No cutesy posters admonishing the flocks to practice teamwork or respect. No exhortations to "be entrapeneurial" when it's known that there's a salary cap of 7% per year. A real entrapeneur could double his income (or half it) in a year. No "you can go as far as you want in this organization" when it's widely known that the boss always gets the credit.

Respect their time too. Nothing is more insulting to an employee's time than working a hundred hours one week to rebuild a server, and then being forced to put in 40 hours of face time the next, just because "it's expected". Employees should not be expected to fill in for hourly workers just because it's cheaper. If a huge photocopying job is needed, have a secretary do it. Programmers and network administrators should not have to drive across town to deliver backup tapes.

Respect their personal needs. Don't keep them away from their families for days on end. Don't make it impossible for them to have a social life or get exercise.

Employees must respect their employer. If they have nothing good to say about the company, they should keep their mouth shut. Terminally negative employees, especially those without a legitimate gripe, should be fired for the good and morale of everyone.

Everyone must respect customers and vendors. Customers can take their business elsewhere, and vendors can tell you to take your business elsewhere.

Respect their money. If you ask a shop "how much just to look at it?", you're asking them to diagnose on the cheap. In many situations, diagnosis is tough, and the actual part replacement is easy. In a corporate situation, if you ask them to fund company trips with their credit cards, make it easy for them to fill out expense reports, and pay them right away. Pay them adequately for use of a company car. Don't make a 300 pound person ride coach coast to coast.

Respect and morale go hand in hand. Morale and performance go hand in hand.
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting. You can email Steve here.

Expect Excellence

By Steve Litt
Expect excellence, don't demand it. The difference is subtle but powerful. Good or bad, people often do what's expected of them. On the other hand, if people are given demands, all too often they're so ornary they deliberately shirk the demand.

You've learned the Universal Troubleshooting Process. You've read this magazine and put its advice to work. You've selected the right Troubleshooter and given her all the necessary help. Given those preparations, it's reasonable to expect excellence. Expect it.
Steve Litt is the author of Manager's Guide to Technical Troubleshooting. You can email Steve here.

Troubleshooting Professional Needs Theme Ideas

By Steve Litt
This is the tenth year I've published Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, and I'm running out of theme ideas. I've written about the UTP, The Attitude, intermittence, bottleneck analysis, toolsmanship, and generic problem solving. I've written short stories, dense and dry treatises, and humor. I can't think of what else to write.

Which is why I need your help. Please email me with topics you'd like to see covered in future Troubleshooting Professional Magazine issues.
Steve Litt is the author of Samba Unleashed. You can email Steve here.

Letters to the Editor

All letters become the property of the publisher (Steve Litt), and may be edited for clarity or brevity. We especially welcome additions, clarifications, corrections or flames from vendors whose products have been reviewed in this magazine. We reserve the right to not publish letters we deem in bad taste (bad language, obscenity, hate, lewd, violence, etc.).
Submit letters to the editor to Steve Litt's email address, and be sure the subject reads "Letter to the Editor". We regret that we cannot return your letter, so please make a copy of it for future reference.

How to Submit an Article

We anticipate two to five articles per issue, with issues coming out monthly. We look for articles that pertain to the Troubleshooting Process, or articles on tools, equipment or systems with a Troubleshooting slant. This can be done as an essay, with humor, with a case study, or some other literary device. A Troubleshooting poem would be nice. Submissions may mention a specific product, but must be useful without the purchase of that product. Content must greatly overpower advertising. Submissions should be between 250 and 2000 words long.

Any article submitted to Troubleshooting Professional Magazine must be licensed with the Open Publication License, which you can view at At your option you may elect the option to prohibit substantive modifications. However, in order to publish your article in Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, you must decline the option to prohibit commercial use, because Troubleshooting Professional Magazine is a commercial publication.

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