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Biggest cause of problems in Electrical / Instrument / Automation Troubleshooting

Because of my interest in teaching and developing technicians, I pay close attention to the root cause of weaknesses and skills gaps when I run across them.

Over the past decade I have spent a huge amount of time conducting extensive technical skills assessments of a large number of I&E technicians. Whenever I discovered specific weaknesses, I would dig down to determine the specific root causes of the problem. Likewise, when I ran into highly knowledgeable and/or very successful technicians I always tried to figure out the magic ingredients that caused them to become exceptional. Doing these detailed assessments was incredibly insightful and refined how I view many of the common skill related problems I see in the field. 

The primary differentiator that I have found between top skilled versus lesser skilled technicians is the individual's comprehension and application of the underlying fundamentals of their craft. Those who learned to use and apply the underlying fundamentals in their routine work early on tend to succeed and become the top technicians. Those who are not lucky enough to connect the basics to the fieldwork typically struggle in some areas.

Weaknesses in the fundamentals will cause many other cascading problems, such as:

  • Poor, slow, or ineffective troubleshooting
  • Error prone, noncompliant, or improper maintenance, calibrations, etc.
  • Inadvertently causing faults, trips, shutdowns, or other problems
  • Reduced safety margins and/or accidents or hazards

Why are so many techs weak in the fundamentals now days???
For many reasons (some are covered in recent blogs) industry is failing in the mentoring area. If mentors fail to help new techs fresh out of trade school or college to associate all that fundamental knowledge and ‘school theory’ to the real world, or fail to teach them to use that knowledge to solve problems in the field – that knowledge will rapidly fade away. Over time, those new techs will forget much of what they ever learned in school and begin just carrying tools and performing tasks robotically without thinking. Eventually, they repeat the cycle, because they themselves cannot properly guide and mentor the next generation.

For techs who transition into maintenance roles without any formal education the challenge is a little more difficult (but feasible). Techs who come in without having learned the basics must be taught all of the fundamentals (in addition to the job specifics). Far too often I see techs simply thrown into the arena without proper development of the basics. Many of these techs struggle or even fail. Some survive the best they can – but they would do so much better and could succeed much quicker if they are able to lock down the basics before getting too deep in. On a few lucky occasions I have seen techs succeed in technical roles with no formal education – but it wasn’t easy and they usually had some good mentoring or other developmental assistance. 

When new techs are properly mentored and developed (and are taught to apply the fundamentals in their work), they learn to utilize and apply the underlying fundamentals as a routine part of the job which will lock the concepts and knowledge in via repeated application of concepts. This will help them develop into the kind of technician who can analyze things all the way down to the details, and typically allow them to become very successful (versus being a technician who simply repeats steps or tends to guess on the deeper or more technical work).

Ironically, I often see organizations spending thousands (or even millions) on extremely detailed or equipment-specific training to solve perceived problems (for example, A technician can’t troubleshoot a certain piece of machinery or equipment…) – but failing to identify or resolve the real root cause of the problems, which is very often caused by weaknesses in the fundamentals (i.e. they can’t understand the schematics, the circuitry, or use a multimeter effectively - because they don't have a real understanding of Ohm's Law or Basic Electricity). 

If your maintenance team struggles in numerous areas (which typically shows up most during troubleshooting work btw), consider checking or assessing their knowledge on underlying fundamentals and if you find what I suspect you'd find, then start including some coverage of the basics in your training program. 

Note - Technical craft knowledge is not a “one and done” thing. Most folks may need more than one dose of training in certain areas. It is possible to build a very smart, efficient, “strategic” plan that covers the most important material and includes the necessary refresher type training at appropriate intervals.

A good template: 

The most effective organization I’ve personally been part of was the USN nuclear program (FYI - commercial nuclear industry tends to have similarly strong programs from my observations). Even after our intensive initial training was completed, we still continued to spend time each week on strategic ‘continuing training’ programs.

These programs strategically ‘refreshed’ the core concepts and the most essential information to help ensure the entire knowledge structure remained strong. It was very helpful and quite successful at keeping our skills up.

This training was typically done by onsite personnel (which has additional benefits above just reduced cost...). Any organization (from a small food plant to a major plant or refinery) could implement similar plans.


Just like I always tell technicians and engineers; Always try to find the root cause of the problem! If your techs are struggling to troubleshoot successfully; are making maintenance mistakes; or are having other problems; dig down to the details and figure out what specifically they are missing (or get help to figure it out if needed).

I believe that most organizations will find that beefing up on the underlying fundamentals could result in a huge impact on the overall maintenance performance. This also applies in Operations, Engineering, Sports, and about any other performance-oriented organization.

And of course - the shameless plug:

Orion Technical Solutions is focused on providing SOLUTIONS – not just training! We try to partner with organizations to accurately identify problems and then actually solve them. We develop training programs that can hopefully serve as key components to a bigger-picture plan to help improve the performance of our customer’s teams.

Our 4-day Hands-on Basic Electricity & Electrical Troubleshooting Course (or one like it) is a great way to strengthen and then fortify the critical knowledge areas of Electricity. We spend 2-days solidifying the essential concepts of electricity, and then we spend 2-days applying that knowledge in real world troubleshooting scenarios. The objective is to build a strong foundation and then develop logical troubleshooting skills to capitalize on that knowledge. 4-days is a long week of training – but in order to produce a substantial result, we find it is necessary.

Orion Technical Solutions can provide basic input to help you setup and develop your internal training programs (no cost) to help overcome weaknesses in troubleshooting, maintenance, and other areas - and/or we can also provide more detailed assistance as a contract service if needed. Call Mike Glass anytime at (208) 715-1590.

Mike Glass

About the author

Mike Glass

Mike Glass is an ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP) and a Master Certified Control System Technician (CCST III). Mike has 38 years of experience in the I&C industry performing a mix of startups, field service and troubleshooting, controls integration and programming, tuning & optimization services, and general I&C consulting, as well as providing technical training and a variety of skills-related solutions to customers across North America.

Mike can be reached directly via [email protected] or by phone at (208) 715-1590.