Troubleshooting Strategy

The path of a technician’s journey is often fraught with obstacles and anomalies, which can oftentimes lead to frustration, loss of consumer confidence, loss of revenue.  Developing an appropriate mindset of how to analyze problems and find solutions is an asset worth investing in.


Every problem has a solution and finding solutions to problems is the trademark of a troubleshooter. Usually troubleshooting is applied to something that has suddenly stopped working, so the initial focus is often on recent changes in the system or to the environment in which it exists. It requires identification of a malfunction or symptom within a system and a method of validation to reassure that the system has been restored to normal. It is the logical systematic approach to finding the source of a problem. Good troubleshooting skills are mandatory for survival in any technical field, not just appliance repair. Finding solutions to these complex problems is the quest of every serious minded technician.

Troubleshooting is an art form and like all forms of art, requires unflagging commitment for improvement. And just like an artist who flicks his brush, or who strums a note, you need a technique, a method, for increasing your troubleshooting abilities, whether that method means classroom training, hands-on training, or any other conditioning. As an employer, one of the most sought-after qualities I look for in a technician is the ability to troubleshoot.

In the appliance repair field troubleshooting is not restricted to mechanical operations, but also to the logical processes of complex electronic components. Skills are needed to develop and maintain these complex electrical and mechanical systems, systems that can have an array of malfunctions; systems which are sure to get more complicated as the industry evolves.

I’ve had a long career in the appliance service business. I’ve met and employed a fair amount of technicians through the years, and I’m reluctant to say I’ve not met many good troubleshooters, most use a hit or miss strategy. Some go so far as to condemn an appliance because they lacked sufficient troubleshooting skills. This is not only the easy way out, it’s dishonest.

Here’s an example of insufficient troubleshooting skills and how it can become costly: On a service call this past week, I responded to a request from a customer to purchase a preowned refrigerator I had posted for sale on my website. I stopped at her apartment in New York City to survey the delivery options, measure the service elevator, etc. I looked at her twenty something built-in refrigerator, which was in excellent condition, and asked her why she wanted to replace it. First, she told me she loved her refrigerator, and then she said the technician from the authorized factory service said that it couldn’t be fixed. Strange I thought, so I asked her if she had a copy of the invoice the technician left behind describing his prognosis. She did and sure enough it said “needs new fridge”. After inspecting her refrigerator, I told her I could fix it for a lot less than purchasing another one. Needless to say, she was elated that she found me. This is a classic example of a technician with insufficient troubleshooting skills. It cost his company a customer.

Good troubleshooters have an analytical mind. They are focused and can concentrate with penetrating force. Many well known investigators have this fundamental trait. The fictional character Sherlock Holmes comes to mind. However, you don’t have to be a Sherlock to be good at troubleshooting. If you can analyze a problem and make an accurate diagnosis, you can be a good troubleshooter. You can develop good troubleshooting skills by focusing on your attitude in the same way you focus on developing skills in sports; you listen to someone who knows more than you, you watch, you learn, you practice.

As an example, early in my career when I started my first business, I often sat around waiting for the phone to ring. To bide my time, I would disassemble and reassemble motors, practice soldering aluminum, and a host of other things. On one occasion I bought a tool that allowed me to check the cut-in and cut-out temperatures of a refrigerator thermostat. This was back in the 70s before electronic instruments were available. It was an aluminum tube, about the size of a fat cigar, and had a 1/4” flare port on the side for a charging hose and a reservoir for holding the thermostat feeler bulb and the stem of my thermometer.

The particular thermostat control I was checking had a cut-out temperature of -4 degrees F. When I placed the feeler bulb of the thermostat into the aluminum tube with the stem of my thermometer and opened the valve on my inverted freon tank, I watched the temperature drop on my thermometer and when it reached -4 degrees F the bellows of the thermostat control contracted and opened the electrical circuit. In a normal situation, this would turn the compressor off. Watching the bellows contract was a revelation to me because it enabled me to see the action of how a thermostat worked. That was a boon for developing my troubleshooting skills and subsequently the way I approached my understanding of how things worked.

Knowledge is the ammunition a troubleshooter uses to breakdown the most complex problems. The majority of the time you use your experience to troubleshoot, but when you come across an anomaly, you have to put your thinking cap on.

Knowledge, from a technician’s perspective, is understanding the product you’re working on as well as the principles of electricity and physics. It is without question that you understand how temperature and pressure are related if you’re working on refrigeration systems, and absolutely essential to be able to read schematic diagrams to pinpoint electrical anomalies. Would you go on a road trip without a map?

If you want to be a crackerjack troubleshooter, you have to have the tenacity and passion of a lion. Have you ever watched a lion mark its prey, have you noticed the intense concentration and focus in its eyes, totally fixated on its course of action; its next meal. You cannot be a good troubleshooter without keen perception, without the ability to concentrate on what your doing. Focus and concentration are the attributes of mastery, attributes worth developing if you plan to excel at troubleshooting. Some of the best troubleshooters I’ve ever met or hired were always able to analyze a problem and find the solution to the most perplexing problems. This is what is means to troubleshoot.

Who do you turn to in your organization when you’re stuck and can’t find a solution? Usually it’s the boss or the service manager, or someone with more experience than you. The easy way to solve a problem is to ask them. A better way, and one with more rewards, is to solve it yourself. But it takes effort and practice.

Here’s a typical example of how I troubleshoot a problem: A customer calls and complains that her ice maker isn’t working. After asking some preliminary questions such as, did anyone work on the plumbing system, is the water turned on, is the freezer maintaining a sufficient temperature? These questions are primers in eliminating some possible causes and will make it easier to troubleshoot the problem when I get there. While on route to the job, I think about the possible remedies. The first thing I do is a visual check. Is there an ice cube stuck in the mold? Is the ice maker getting power? Is there a disruption in the water supply? If nothing is obvious, I’ll check the temperature in the freezer, since ice makers work off temperature. Soft ice cream is a good indicator that the freezer is not cold enough to initiate a harvest cycle.

These techniques are part and partial to my routine troubleshooting method developed over many years of experience. You may have your own style of solving problems. What’s important is that you have a method, a technique. Determining the most likely cause of a problem is simply a process of elimination. Use your senses and begin at the most obvious place according to the malfunction. Look with your eyes, smell with your nose, touch with your hands.

Let’s recap some of the most common attributes you need to be a good troubleshooter. Focus and concentration are key. Fixity of purpose is another. Keeping up with new technologies is paramount. Determination is like rocket fuel. If you possess any of these qualities, you can be a crackerjack troubleshooter in your chosen field of interest.

In closing let me say that one of the most sought-after qualities employers look for in a technician is the ability to troubleshoot. If you’re self-employed, what better way is there to build your company reputation then by being proficient, by being honest, by being a good troubleshooter.


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