Troubleshooting a system can be guided by instructions created by its developer or someone with extensive experience operating and maintaining similar systems. Without a specific context, however, a troubleshooting process can be very difficult to describe. There is an enormous number of variables that could potentially warrant consideration. The type of system (mechanical, power transmission, fluid power, electrical, motion control, etc.), operating environment (indoor, outdoor, arid, tropical, arctic, etc.), and severity of duty are only the beginning.
The vast array of systems and situations that could be encountered requires that troubleshooting be learned as a generalized skill. What tool set could be more general, more universally applicable, than our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and the most powerful of all, common sense?
Our natural senses are great gifts. They are always available to us without strapping on a tool belt or carrying a heavy tool box. They are, however, only the first tools to be brought to bear on a problem. What is learned from the natural senses informs the choice of tool box to be employed for further investigation.
Diagnostic tools aid the senses, but should not replace them. They expand the range of detection, isolate sources of energy, quantify observations, and provide standardized output that can be clearly communicated to others for action or decision-making. They also depend on our natural senses to be appropriately selected and properly deployed.
Once you begin thinking of troubleshooting as a layered application of tools, beginning with the natural senses, it becomes an automatic response to a report of an issue. Therefore, a lengthy treatise is not required; an overview of how each sense can be applied to troubleshooting and some example tools to start your toolbox wishlist should suffice.
Sense of Sight
Humans rely, disproportionately, on our vision to function in all aspects of our lives. Thus, it is often our sense of sight that first detects signs of trouble. Spotting a fluid leak or unexpected movements from machine components that should be stable or fixed are common examples. Noticing discoloration of a component or missing or unusual features of a part are also valuable insights gained with the sense of sight. If it looks like there is a problem, it may be time to deploy advanced tools and techniques.
Tools used to aid the sense of sight can be as simple as a flashlight or as sophisticated as a high-speed high-definition video camera. Analysis of high-speed equipment or very short-duration events can be difficult with the naked eye. A high-speed camera allows the video playback to be advanced at a speed compatible with our ability to discriminate discrete events.
Sense of Hearing
Audible cues are also common first signs of trouble. Whether emanating from a malfunctioning machine or a dissatisfied customer, audible cues effectively attract our attention to problems requiring resolution.
When an air leak is heard among a plant’s facility and equipment plumbing, the precise origin of the noise may not be obvious. To pinpoint the leak’s location, an ultrasonic detector may be used. This tool allows its operator to differentiate between air lines in close proximity to accurately locate the leak, be it caused by a pinhole, loose connection, or other defect.
Sense of Smell
In similar fashion to audible cues, olfactory signals can draw attention to a problem that may not have been directly observed otherwise. Our sense of smell notifies us when our toaster has failed to eject, when a baby’s diaper needs to be changed, when we’ve left the milk out too long, and when our propane tank is leaking.
Commercial settings have normal and abnormal aromas as well. The smell of smoke, in almost any environment, warrants an investigation into its source. An acrid smell in a machine shop may remind operators that the condition of a coolant tank cannot be ignored forever.
The choice of tools to be pulled from the toolbox is often influenced by odors, but a tool to improve our sense of smell is not commonly available. Chemical analyses may confirm olfactory observations and compound-specific “sniffers” exist for limited applications.
Sense of Taste
Our sense of taste is the least-commonly used in industrial settings. Food scientists, brewers, and caterers tend to employ this tool far more frequently than those in other industries. To aid your sense of taste, your toolbox should include a second opinion. Have you never thrust a sample at a companion and asked “does this this taste [enter concern here] to you??”
Sense of Touch
A tactile analysis can be very useful as a preliminary investigation. Subjective observations provide insight into the condition of a system and inform decisions regarding further analysis. Areas that are hotter or colder than normal, the presence of fluid, vibration, or unusual surface texture are clues to a problem’s cause that should be addressed in the analysis.
An ultrasonic detector can be used to quantify and trend vibration characteristics to monitor changes over time. Multiple applications make this tool an attractive option for the toolbox. A thermal-imaging camera can add objective information to the analysis of thermal aberrations. This, too, is a versatile tool; it can be used to monitor and diagnose many mechanical and electrical systems.
Before adding a sophisticated tool to your toolbox, research the capabilities of candidate products, review your potential applications and match the two. Be sure to include training requirements in your procurement plan. Purchasing the most appropriate tool, and ensuring proper training on its use, will maximize its utility and prevent future disappointment with its performance.
The term “common sense” is used here to maintain the theme of the post and make it easy to remember. If it were as ubiquitous as its name suggests, we could all be assured of its prevalence in troubleshooting efforts; it would scarcely warrant a mention.
There is a more accurate term for this sixth sense: intuition. Employing intuition is sometimes referred to as “following your gut.” When you cannot prove, or possibly even explain, why you feel a particular course of action is appropriate, that is intuition – your “gut” – in action. In situations where data is unavailable, time is short, and consequences dire, the only available option may be to “go with your gut.”
Data collection and thorough analysis of various types constitute the ideal investigation. When circumstances allow, intuition should be supported by experimentation, analysis, or whatever activity is required to vet it. Conversely, intuition should be applied to analysis results as well as the original situation. If experimental results do not make sense, decisions based on them will be flawed. Intuition may suggest that the experiment be repeated, or reconfigured, to validate the initial results.
To bolster your intuition, fill your toolbox with varied experience, mentors and collaborators, and continuous learning. This will also help direct your intuition onto itself; that is, you will learn when not to trust it as well as when you should. Well-developed judgment is crucial, as observations from the natural senses and experimental results are filtered by intuition before analysis decisions are made.
Protect your Tools
Most of us are aware of the value of caring for the tools we keep in our toolboxes – the real ones – to maintain functionality and reliability. Yet, we are often careless with the most precious tools we possess – our senses and our persons. Protect these tools with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) – safety glasses, ear plugs, gloves, and so on – for the task. Maintain these tools with periodic examinations and recommended care. Keeping your senses in the best-possible working condition is not only key to your troubleshooting ability, it will also improve the quality of life for the rest of your days.
For all things troubleshooting, feel free to contact JayWink Solutions. We can help you solve a specific problem, create guides and instructions, or train your staff to be efficient troubleshooters.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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