When Troubleshooting, Keep It Simple

The year was 1988. I was an 18-year-old airman recruit stationed at the Naval Air Technical Training Center (NATTC) in Memphis. I had just graduated basic training and was now spending the next six months learning the basics of being an aviation electrician. I had already taken some courses and was fairly confident that I would do well in my new career path.

Several months into training, I decided to take leave and visit my family. It was during this time that I learned a very important lesson. My Aunt Liz had stopped by to visit and was now ready to leave. I walked her to the car and said my goodbyes. As she opened the door to get in her car, she realized the interior lights had not come on. As this was a new car, she was quite alarmed and voiced her concern. Being the good nephew and a US Navy aviation electrician, I was more than happy to lend a hand and show off my new skills.

I quickly diagnosed the problem and exclaimed, “You have an open circuit that is preventing electricity from getting to the light. I suggest you take this car back to the dealership for repairs!” Knowing she wouldn’t understand what an open circuit was, I took the time to explain it to her. In the middle of my explanation, my cousin sat down in the driver’s seat, reached up to the cockpit light, and turned on the switch. The lights came on! Everyone had a good laugh at my expense, including me. Though I must admit, I laughed with them to hide my shame and embarrassment.

I had been taught basic electronics and electricity. The process and art of troubleshooting was foreign to me. Fortunately, I later learned a method of troubleshooting that I would carry with me even to this day. It certainly would have come in handy during my visit home!

While I can look back and laugh at my story, it still resonates with me after 29 years! I’ve frequently shared it with staff as a light-hearted warning of what an erroneous diagnosis can lead to.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many people enter the work force lacking the basic fundamentals required to effectively troubleshoot and diagnose problems. Most often, they were never taught!

I’ve worked closely with learning and development, leadership, and staff to create training curriculum for troubleshooting appropriate for the need of the teams. While it varies from one job to the next, or from one team to the next, the training starts at the beginning, by defining troubleshooting. Simply stated, it is the process of solving problems. Quite simple, right? Let’s take it a step further. It is solving problems with a systematic, logical, and sequential approach. The steps are quite simple.


Analyzing is the most important part of the process. It is this step that verifies a problem exists. This requires an understanding of how the system works. What is the intended outcome? Knowing what should occur leads you to the logical step of isolation.


In isolating a problem, you systematically verify operable functions that occur prior to a failure. As you sign off on those, you isolate the problem to its origin.


In this step, you identify the various components/features of the system you suspect are faulty. This should be based on probability. The key here is to maintain a common-sense approach. The focus here switches from resultant action. Once the problem is detected, repair or replace as necessary.


Test your repairs to ensure system functionality is restored.

Work Through the Steps

Now, let’s tie this together using a real world example. You receive a service request that an employee’s monitor is not working. You make your way to the workstation and assess the situation. You analyze the situation and understand the following conditions must be met for the monitor to work:

  • The monitor is plugged in to power source
  • There is power at the source
  • The monitor is turned ON
  • The monitor is connected to the PC

You begin to isolate the problem by verifying each of the above conditions are true. One by one, you verify each condition, eliminating potential root causes. A visual check determines the monitor is plugged in and turned on. You determine power is being supplied to the computer, which also suggests power is being provided to the monitor.

Now, suppose the monitor IS connected to the PC. All conditions have been met yet, the monitor is still not working! Welcome to the real world. Did you really think it would be this easy? Fret not, the process is still the same. Remember, we are taking a logical approach to finding a solution.

In this case, we can identify the problem repeating the first two troubleshooting steps on the four system conditions. Because we want to apply common sense, we should focus on the easiest system and the one that is likely to be the culprit. Introduce a known working monitor into the equation. While this may NOT be the problem, it is easy to test. In this case, you discover you have a defective monitor. Think you can fix it?

If you follow the steps, perhaps you can! As you see, troubleshooting can be simplified. With a good plan of attack, you can save time, money, and resources. Having managed technical support and help desk departments, I know the importance of keeping all of these costs to a minimum.

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