Troubleshooting Professional

Back IssuesVolume 1, Issue 3, March 1997Back to Troubleshooters.Com
Copyright (C) 1997 by Steve Litt


Editors Desk
Math and the Art of Transportational Biking
Pre-school Troubleshooters
A Legend Before His Time
The Power of Example
Advanced Placement Troubleshooting
Letters to the Editor
How to Submit an Article
URLs Mentioned in this Issue

Editors Desk

Is Troubleshooting the exclusive domain of professional adults? Must it be taught only in training rooms, with a $500 per trainee pricetag? Can children learn it? If so, how? What can you do to help the children in your life learn the Troubleshooting Process, as well as the skills, principles and thought processes that form its foundation?

Does our future depend on teaching our children to troubleshoot? If so, how are we meeting our responsibilities -- head on, or head in the sand? This issue of Troubleshooting Professional wrestles with this question. Math and the Art of Transportational Biking takes on the question "what good is Troubleshooting Knowledge". One of our most cherished myths is examined in the article A Legend Before His Time. Articles Pre-school Troubleshooters, Advanced Placement Troubleshooting, and The Power of Example discuss how to impart Troubleshooting Knowledge to children: In pre-school, in K-12, and in the home.

I'd like to give special thanks my wife, Sylvia Reuben Litt, who contributed the article Pre-school Troubleshooters, based on her many years as a pre-school teacher and director. She's supported me through years of (always stressful, sometimes unsuccessful) evangelizing Troubleshooting Process.

Thanks for reading Troubleshooting Professional. If you're a Troubleshooter, this is your magazine. Enjoy!.

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.


Math and the Art of Transportational Biking

By Steve Litt

There was a time I went everywhere on a bicycle. No car, just my Schwinn Varsity. You remember Schwinn Varsitys, those indestructible, 40 pound behemoths of the bike world. Pure steel rims that could take a direct hit from railroad tracks at 30 mph and live to tell about it. A guy who opened his car door into my bike's path learned the hard way. I flew 20 feet. His car-door would no longer close. The Varsity? A bent wheel -- nothing I couldn't fix with a spoke wrench.

I don't think a day went by where someone didn't give me a hard time about my 40 pound bike. "You can't possibly go fast on that heavy bike". Or, if they'd seen me in action, it was "I don't know how you can go fast on that heavy bike". Some truly inspired critics went as far as to suggest that if I bought a 20 pound Bob Jackson bike, I'd double my riding speed because the Bob Jackson was half the weight of my Schwinn Varsity.

They shouldn't have slept through math class. The 20 pound weight difference represented about 10% of the combined rider/bike combination, so the most I'd gain is 10%. But wait -- there's more. If they had paid attention in high school physics class, they'd know that weight matters only when you're going up hill or accelerating. In a flat place like my home town Chicago, that's about 20% of the time. So that 10% gain becomes 2%. A 2% I easily compensated for by railroad-track jumping, curb jumping, unpaved shortcuts, and other time-saving maneuvers which would have trashed the 20 pound bike in a week.

The moral the story? Math is good for more than being a professor or becoming an insurance actuary. A good understanding of math will benefit every aspect of your life, including picking the right bicycle for the job at hand.

Same with Troubleshooting. The study of Troubleshooting Process brings a child knowledge of cause and effect, process theory, observation, a problem solving attitude, problem decomposition and bottleneck analysis. Armed with those skills, a child can better handle the problems and opportunities life presents.

Steve Litt is president of American Troublebusters and Troubleshooters.Com, and editor of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. He's also an application developer and technical writer. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

All I Really Need to Know About Troubleshooting I Learned in Kindergarten

By Steve Litt

Well, OK, not all of it. But I learned some core skills before I was 6.

Ages 2-5

Cause and Effect

Touch a hot stove, and you WILL get burned. Let your parents see your mess, and you WILL get your toys taken away. Why not carry it a step farther, and explain to the children in your life that cause and effect is more than crime and punishment. Wear out your batteries, and your robot WILL stop working. So if your robot stops working, check the batteries (or have your parents check them).


I learned about Process before age 6. "Mommy, how do I draw a clown?".

"Well son, first you draw a circle for the head, then draw circles for the eyes and a check mark for the nose". Why not carry it a step farther, and explain that clown-drawing is a process, and that everything you're likely to do in your life you do with a process. You will even develop a process to learn new things and a process to do things you've never done before.

Ages 6-10


Find all the animals in this drawing, find all the faces, find all the names. As a kid did you wonder why they gave you these problems? Why not tell the children in your life how important observation is to solving problems. When did your bike start feeling slow? Is it slower than Johnny's and Jenny's?

Binary Search

This just isn't taught in school :-(, so you need to teach it yourself. Fortunately, there's an easy game, called twenty questions, that you can play with the children in your life. Play it often. Ask a question like "20 questions who I saw at the market today?". The child solves the problem by asking questions, up to 20 of them, which must be answered with either a yes or a no. At first the child will do a sequential search "Is it Johnny?" "Is it Mary Ann?". Explain that with the hundreds of people the child knows or has heard of, he or she must narrow things down quickly with questions that continually divide the field in half. Thus the child learns binary search questions like "Is the person male?" "Is the person over 21 years old" "Have I met the person in person?". At some point make the child aware that this is a process, and it's the same process you use to fix a car or a computer.

The 10 Step Process

It's never too early to give the child exposure to the Universal Troubleshooting Process. Write out the 10 steps. Tell the child the URL of Troubleshooters.Com, and show him or her how to maneuver to the Universal Troubleshooting Process. (Note: As far as I know, Troubleshooters.Com and its links are child-friendly. If you find a child-unfriendly link, please email Troubleshooters.Com).

Explain to the child that this 10 step process can be used to fix cars, TV sets, computers, toys, and almost anything else.

Refining age 2-5 skills

Cause and Effect: Every effect has a cause, and if you want to change the effect, you need to change the cause. Process: As the children in your life accomplish things, ask them the process they used to accomplish them.

Ages 11-16

I truly believe a 16 year old is equipped to know and absorb everything documented about the Troubleshooting Process. An average intelligence, properly trained (in Troubleshooting Process) 16 year old could read a couple books on computers and become a competent professional computer technician.

The Attitude

This takes a high level of emotional maturity that comes (hopefully) with experience in the schoolyard and the classroom. Point out to the teenagers in your life that to solve problems you must put your emotions aside long enough to think rationally about the problem. You can logically consider your emotions in problem solving, but don't let them control the process. The teen-ager's experiences should have taught them that you can accomplish much more cooperating with others than by ignoring or fighting with them. This is the point to let the teen-agers in your life know that these same skills are vital fixing equipment and systems.

Bottleneck Theory

This is a toughy, because it requires analogy experiences the teen-ager might not have, and because it's intellectually challenging. If the teen has taken geometry, explain that in a right triangle with sides length 1, 100, and 100.005. If you double the length of the short side, you'll change the hypotenuse by only 0.015%. However, if you change the long side by 1%, you'll change the hypotenuse by almost the same 1%. Obviously, the long side is the bottleneck.

Have the teen ride half a mile on an otherwise well maintained bicycle with underinflated tires. Inflate the tires only enough to prevent rim damage and instability on curves. Instruct the teen not to ride at high speed, but instead to note the ease or difficulty of peddling. Make sure the teen rides safely, with a helmet, in a straight, safe area with good pavement. Ask the teen how hard it was to peddle. Then boost the inflation to the rated pressure in several steps, and have the teen note the changes in difficulty. The teen will find that at some point, further changes to tire inflation produce minimal improvements in ridability, as the bottleneck shifts from inflation to wind resistance. Explain wind resistance, ask the teen what's preventing further decreases in riding difficulty, and ask what steps could be taken to alleviate the new cause (i.e. riding position, windshield, less porous clothes, etc.).

Show the teen how bottleneck analysis relates to the every-day concept of "the law of diminishing returns". The teen should also be told that often the best way to test a component for a bottleneck is to *decrease* that component's capacity, then see if the whole system's capacity decreases by a similar factor. That's because you can usually decrease the component's capacity with an adjustment, but to increase capacity you usually must replace it.

Refining age 2-10 skills:

20 Questions: Play 20 questions about a machine or system they know something about. "My car won't start when cold -- 20 questions what caused it?", or "my computer no longer makes sound -- 20 questions what caused it?". This is pure troubleshooting simulation, without the bruised knuckles or bent IC pins.

10 Step Universal Troubleshooting Process: Now is the time to explain the 10 step Universal Troubleshooting Process in detail -- why it works, why it's in the order it's in, what happens if you skip a step.

Cause and Effect: Discuss with the teen-ager how the cause can be separated by time and space from the effect. Discuss the fact that the most valid way to change the (bad) effect is to change the cause, but that the effect can also be changed by "coathanger" solutions (named after holding your muffler up with a coathanger instead of using bolts). Discuss how "coathangering" invariably causes further problems, or allows the original and uncorrected cause to cause other problems.

Pre-school Troubleshooters

By Sylvia Reuben Litt Copyright (C) 1997 by Sylvia Reuben Litt. (Reprinted by permission of author)

Children learn what they live -- today's child is tomorrow's troubleshooting future. Give him or her the necessary tools. Train those thoughts right in the bud.

Here's an example: A 2 1/2 - 3 year old is working with a shape puzzle. He attempts to put a circle shape into a triangle space and gets frustrated! Instead of taking the circle piece and putting it in the circle space for him, ask him to find a matching circle space on the tray or ask him to put the circle aside and find a shape that matches the triangle space on the puzzle tray.

When it comes to Troubleshooting, the bottom line is: Stimulate the child's brain. Get him or her to think, think, and think some more.

Sylvia Reuben Litt is a former pre-school director and teacher currently on leave to care for her four year old triplets. She is currently developing a website for parents. She can be reached at

A Legend Before His Time

Ron lumbers down his high school hall, looking like a bulked-up James Dean who traded his pointy shoes for blunt brown steel-toes, his peg-leg jeans for baggy grays, and his oh-so-perfect DA hairstyle for something less Hollywood. He's sixteen and looks twenty. Ron's not in any "mainstream" classes. He's one of those "shop guys", invisible until there's a brawl or some yuppie's kid needs good car repair done cheap.

Ron's good with cars. Last month he bought a 67 Dart for $75, "dropped in" a dual 4 barrel 440 and a 4 speed manual, cut a hole in the hood to fit an apparatus that looks more like the El Segundo Electric Plant than a carburetor, ditched the back seat in the alley, and lost a cop car on the first test run.

The girls love Ron, or at least a certain type of girl. The girls are all high school seniors (some for the second time), who look 30, walk with too much slink and smile with too much smirk. In High School we all learned a name for this type of girl, and they wear the dark roots beneath the bleach as a membership card to that group.

Ron's future isn't so hot. Before the snow next flies he'll impregnate one of those bleached beauties, marry her, and drop out to work in the local garage. In the next few years they'll have three more kids and move to a trailer park. His wife will get fat and sloppy, he'll get drunk and slap her around. Raised in dysfunction, and without even the automotive hobby to keep them out of trouble, Ron's two sons will trade their high school classrooms for a jail cell after robbing a liquor store.

Parents don't want their child turning out like Ron, so they don't let their teen-ager take shop classes. Instead, they send their youngsters to yet another semester of imagery, alliteration, iambic pentameter, similes and metaphors, advanced placement Russian, differential equations, frictionless pucks and ideal engines. Ron has done his job well as anti-shop poster boy.


Of course, Ron is just a stereotype. He stared in a thousand movies before he was born.. He's a legend before his own time. Just turn on your TV and you can see Ron drag-racing, smoking, drinking, brawling, and separating young girls from their innocence. However, Ron's greatest feat, never shown on TV, has been to keep generations of bright young kids out of shop class. Those kids turn out more like Jim

No shop or vocational classes for Jim! He went straight through high school and engineering school (EE major), with straight A's. He never soldered a chip. He never troubleshot anything more complex than his little protoboard lab assignments. So his first five years as an engineer he couldn't debug the circuits he designed. Then he went into management, where he couldn't debug his department. Multiply Jim by thousands of college grads per year and you have a recipe for substandard productivity.

Don't just teach your child the Troubleshooting Process. Give him something to practice on!

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

The Power of Example

Ever watch Gymnastics on TV? A competitor invents a new move. A few months later, several top performers are using that move. Five years later, college gymnasts are using that same move. Is the human race really improving that fast? Or is it that half the battle is knowing that trick is possible?

When I lived in Venice, California I used to watch the guys doing tricks on those little bikes. There would be about 20 of them on the Pavillion. One would do an impossible looking trick. Another biker would say "yeah, that's way cool", and would try it. They'd all try each other's tricks, and master them. Very little coaching went on -- it was mainly watch and imitate. It seems like if you want to be great at something, the best approach is to hang out with others who are great at it.

One of the greatest troubleshooting gifts to give the children in your life is to let them see you fix things. When I fix our old VCR, I let my almost-four-year-old triplets watch. Sure, I have to keep them away from the soldering iron, and make sure they don't reach in the equipment and get a shock, but it's worth it. They get to see me bring their "video machine" back to life. Even at their age, they're learning that Troubleshooting is a Process, not voodoo. They've heard words like "general maintenance", "divide and conquer", and "test", and they know those things are somehow related to bringing back their Barney tapes. When they encounter their first computer malfunction they'll be ready. They've seen it done.

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Advanced Placement Troubleshooting

It's vital that our children learn their core academics to prepare them for life. But does a high school senior really need that sixteenth year of English or Math? Couldn't they skip a semester of history and learn it from books later on? Here's what I'd like to see my kids take in their last semester of high school:

Troubleshooting Process Theory:

In this class, the students would read various documentations of the Troubleshooting Process: Jim Roach's Diagnosis, Jack G. Ganssle's Looped 6 step method, Steve Litt's Universal Troubleshooting Process, and Microsoft's DETECT method. They'll compare and contrast those methodologies -- the strong and weak points of each. How are the methodologies products of the industries which spawned them.

The students would read The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox (ISBN 0-88427-061-0), to learn more of Bottleneck Analysis and General Problem Solving. Goldratt and Cox define problem solving as these three steps: 1) Knowing what to change, 2) knowing what to change to, 3) knowing how to cause the change. Note that what I call the Troubleshooting Process encompasses step 1 of Goldratt/Cox's problem solving, making it a necessary part of solving *any* problem.

Each student would give at least one oral report of a machine or system he or she fixed or tried to fix, and the methods he or she used to do it. The class will discuss each report. How would it have been solved using a different Troubleshooting Process? Were there other tests and steps that could have shortened the process?

Auto Shop or Computer Shop or Electronics Shop

This gives the students a place to practice on real-life, manufactured items. Here they'd learn about rusted nuts, deficient solder joints, and buggy software. They'd learn about the real-life physical barriers that make Divide and Conquer harder, and they'd learn the value of a good Mental Model.


Philosophy courses are valuable because they contain quite a bit of logic, and because they stress the value of HOW you think, not just what you think. A lot of philosophy boils down to the *process* you use to think On the first class day, the teacher must make the students aware of how the course will benefit their lives.

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Letters to the Editor

Here's where letters to the editor will go. This is the third issue, and there have been no letters to the editor :-(. Please write.

All letters become the property of the publisher (Steve Litt), and may be edited for clarity or brevity. We reserve the right to not publish letters we deem in bad taste (bad language, obscenity, hate, lewd, violence, etc.).

These first few issues, we'd greatly appreciate feedback type letters. Especially valuable are balanced letters, mixing suggested alternatives with criticism, or mixing areas of improvement with praise. Flames for flames sake or sycophantic praise aren't as valuable.

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

Special note for the April issue: We'd like to have some humorous articles for the April issue. Submit your favorite "whacky customer" stories but be sure to disguise all people and organizations.

We anticipate five to eight articles per issue, with issues coming out monthly. The next few issues we'll be looking for articles on how to bring the Troubleshooting Process to all areas of business and society. This can be done as an essay (like the articles above), with humor, or with a case study. A Troubleshooting poem would be nice. We are *not* looking for ultra-technical or system-specific articles in the next few issues. Submissions should be between 250 and 2000 words long.

All submissions become the property of the publisher (Steve Litt), unless other arrangements are previously made in writing. We do not currently pay for articles. Troubleshooters.Com reserves the right to edit any submission for clarity or brevity. Any published article will include a two sentence description of the author, a hypertext link to his or her email, and a phone number if desired. Upon request, we will include a hypertext link, at the end of the magazine issue, to the author's website, providing that website meets the Troubleshooters.Com criteria for links and that the author's website first links to Troubleshooters.Com.

Submissions should be emailed to Steve Litt's email address, with subject line Article Submission. The first paragraph of your message should read as follows:

I (your name), am submitting this article for possible publication in Troubleshooters.Com. I understand that this submission becomes the property of the publisher, Steve Litt, whether or not it is published, and that Steve Litt reserves the right to edit my submission for clarity or brevity. I certify that I wrote this submission and no part of it is owned by, written by or copyrighted by others.

After that paragraph, write the title, text of the article, and a two sentence description of the author.


URLs Mentioned in this Issue is Jack Ganssle's looped, 6 step method. is Jim Roaches Diagnosis method. is the Universal Troubleshooting Process. is the website of the Avraham Y. Goldratt Institute (The Goal). is the website of Jeff Cox, co-author of The Goal. is the Schwinn Bicycle website. is Steve Litt's website.