Tips for Managers of I&E / Maintenance Techs
Does the sequence above seem familiar? Many techs would say that is typical.. It is definitely not the right path for successful operations, but I have to admit that I see way too many mangers who inadvertently push this sort of approach or mentality. For several decades, I have helped organizations identify and solve skills problems with maintenance technicians. In this article, I'll identify some of the most overlooked problems and solutions related to weak troubleshooting performance.
The technical & knowledge weaknesses for the technicians can usually be resolved with some well targeted training - But another part of the problem that needs to be discussed is how the applicable managers approach troubleshooting and repair efforts.
Managers from different parts of the same organization (even who have technicians at similar skill levels) will either improve or degrade the overall reliability and performance simply by their management approach to troubleshooting and repair efforts.
For this presentation, I'll skip the obvious management aspects that are part of leadership courses and programs and focus on the most helpful technical solutions that managers of maintenance personnel can easily implement to help improve troubleshooting and repair activities over time.
1) Formalize the documentation of the troubleshooting process.
Techs may complain at first, but having a clear record of their thought process, logic, testing, conclusions, RCF, and retest plans pays huge dividends. But it also helps ‘enforce’ a logical and systematic approach to troubleshooting and repair activities, which is critical to long term success.
I recommend use standardized logical form such as this 7-Step Electrical Troubleshooting Methodology (contact me for an MS Word version of this form that you can modify to your specific organization and needs). This is the standard troubleshooting form we use in our electrical training courses.
2) Have personnel submit the completed forms for review after each troubleshooting activity.
a. Review the completed forms and follow up with the techs as appropriate. Have them explain their reasoning and logic as needed so you understand it. Push them to take the time to write down the details during the troubleshooting process (so they don’t forget details of tests and end up going in circles or working from inaccurate assumptions).
3) It can sometimes be helpful to require techs to get ‘approval’ before replacing any parts.
a. This helps prevent the weakest techs from part-swapping or guessing and is surprisingly helpful at pushing logic into the troubleshooting process. If a tech cannot quickly verify or justify the reason they suspect a part is bad, swapping it may not be the right answer yet.
b. Part swapping can be bad because it can cause damage to new parts or hide other problems – but even worse, it helps establish a culture of ‘guessing’, and guessing is nearly always a bad thing in the maintenance technician world.
c. If they are allowed to guess – the weakest techs often take the easy way out and will just guess instead of digging in or thinking. Push them to explain their logic adequately. Don’t allow them blindly guess or swap parts until they luckily stumble across the problem. Don't let them BS you or dazzle you with big words or concepts - a good tech should be able to explain their reasoning well enough to be understood by anyone.
Note - I've been solving complex problems for a very long time and have never been unable to provide at least a basic explanation of the problem or solution to any concerned manager (even if they had no training in the technical areas). It does take practice, but anyone who can logically solve the problem should be capable of explaining it.
d. In many instances, it can also be helpful for managers to get some basic familiarity training in certain areas to better understand the technician's lingo, and core concepts to make it easier for their techs to explain things to them.
4) Always diligently seek to identify the root cause of failure (RCF).
Root cause of failure (RCF) is overlooked or ignored way too often in the field nowadays and it leads to repeating problems that cost money and can increase risks.
RCF is one of the single most important practices to implement into the troubleshooting process. Solid RCF practices will lead to more improvements than anything else.
a. Having some form of material history record or indexable maintenance log that can help identify when certain faults are repeating can be tremendously helpful if properly set up and utilized. This helpful tool often gets neglected by many maintenance departments…
b. It is not always possible to find the actual RCF of every problem. But you should set the standard for your techs by consistently seeking the real RCF for every problem. Don't just find something to list or use vague assumptive type RCF's. The technicians will follow your lead... If you care about finding and solving the RCF, so will your techs!
5) Finally, review the RETEST plans and results with your techs.
Often, because of the pressure to get the equipment running again, the retest is rushed or skipped or is very minimalistic and may miss important problems that result in (you guessed it) more downtime, and increased risks.
a. If personnel have adjusted, moved, replaced, or altered equipment as part of the repair process, you need to consider the need for retesting it. Sometimes, during the troubleshooting process, wires or components may be temporarily disconnected or altered in some way – so be sure your retest is also verifying EVERY item that has been toyed with is back in full operational mode.
6) Benefits of methodical approach to guide troubleshooting efforts:
By reviewing a formalized troubleshooting and repair form, a maintenance manager can help drive home the importance of each step in the troubleshooting process.
Some of these steps might cause apparent delays in some of the easier problems. But if you develop a standard, systematic approach to troubleshooting and repair functions, you will find the following over time:
Solve the difficult problems in a timely manner without requiring outside help.
Reduction in trips, downtime, and equipment damage
Improved technician skills (they are thinking instead of just reacting or guessing)
Elimination of repetitive problems
Improved morale and retention – when techs begin solving more of the real problems instead of just reacting, guessing, or deferring to outside help, it can add tremendous satisfaction and buy-in to the cause. Improving the troubleshooting process helps everyone succeed and results in measurable improvements that techs can take pride in.
7) Identifying Weaknesses in Technicians:
Formalizing (documenting) the troubleshooting process can help managers identify certain weaknesses in technicians. Techs who can’t explain or justify their approach to a problem are often just weak in some fundamental area and are likely just guessing to bridge the gap.
They don’t have to explain the problem/solution like a published textbook author – but if they can’t explain their logic, RCF, or retest to a decent extent, it’s usually because they don’t really understand some of the underlying concepts. In cases where you find techs who do not know (and/or cannot explain) their reasoning, either help find them necessary training or point them to helpful resources, mentors, etc.
Note - If techs become defensive or hostile when asked about their logic or approach to troubleshooting, it is often a sign that they are hiding weaknesses. It can be embarrassing or even a career risk for some techs to admit weaknesses. In my experience, weaker technicians will use any trick in the book to avoid admitting or showing their weaknesses. Managers will need to be cognizant of these human behaviors as they implement these suggestions.
As managers, we need to look beyond just quickly getting the system running again – we also need to be striving for better reliability and more efficient, more accurate, more effective maintenance actions.
It may seem counterintuitive to slow down and require more documentation and explanations of repair processes - but I've seen the results of both management styles many times and I'm convinced that a more methodical approach pays tremendous dividends over time.
Managers who are asking the right questions during and after troubleshooting and repair activities (and/or who are utilizing some documentation similar to the form listed) as an integral part of the process, will be driving their teams and systems to better performance.