The Problem Statement: Don’t Troubleshoot Without One!

The very first step in troubleshooting a broken appliance happens long before the tech sets foot in the customer’s home. In fact, it can happen even before the tech knows about the service call. We’re talking about formulating a problem statement.

What I mean by a problem statement is very specific. A valid problem statement answers these two questions: “What is the appliance not doing that it should be doing?” and/or “What is the appliance doing that it shouldn’t be doing?” It doesn’t go beyond that — no speculations about underlying causes or parts to be replaced. Just a simple statement of what’s wrong with the appliance.

Why am I being so persnickety about this problem statement business? Because clear and precise troubleshooting starts with a clear and precise premise. Your problem statement is the foundation that all your subsequent troubleshooting is built on. But the trick is that you have to get this problem statement from a customer problem description. And as anyone who has worked as a CSR knows, customer descriptions can be anything but clear and precise. There’s a skill to refining a customer’s description of the problem to a real problem statement, and it’s important for both techs and CSRs. In fact, a mark of a good CSR is the ability to guide a customer into giving the necessary details over the phone and to sort out what’s important from what’s not.

As a tech, the key importance of a well-formed problem statement is that it directly points to your load of interest (LOI)— “the thing that ain’t doing it’s thang.” Troubleshooting always begins at loads, not switches. 

You can then begin wargaming the problem on the schematic before the service call. Specifically, you’re reading the schematic to see how that load is getting its power supply and what switches are in that circuit to control that power supply. In fact, you can do the first seven steps of the Ten Step Tango Troubleshooting procedure on your iPad before you even step foot in the house. Along with that, you’ll review and bookmark any disassembly steps you need to do in order to access your test points, which should be conveniently and cleverly chosen EEPs (electrically equivalent points) for your LOI, such as at the control board. This means you walk into the home with a troubleshooting gameplane already in mind. You don’t waste time scratching your head (or other parts) in the customer’s home (with them watching you) and wondering what to do next. 

Let’s walk through some examples of what refining a customer’s gobbledygook description into a functional problem statement looks like. First up, a refrigerator:

The customer says, “The dispenser is dispensing too much water. The refrigerator is supposed to let you choose how much water to dispense. I’ve tried pushing the buttons on the panel that are supposed to adjust the water fill, but nothing changes.” The customer goes on to say that he’s an engineer and did this diagnosis himself. He knows that it must be the main control board and wants you to replace it.

All right, that’s a bit to sort through. But remember our definition of a problem statement: “What is the appliance not doing that it should be doing?” and/or “What is the appliance doing that it shouldn’t be doing?” Let’s boil down this description to that.

First off, discard any customer diagnoses. It doesn’t matter who the customer is or what their credentials are. They’re hiring your company to do this repair, so you’re going to use your own technical expertise to determine what repair needs to be done. We can just ignore the second half of that description.

As for the first half, while the customer is very focused on the water dispenser, that system seems to be doing its job. The thing that really seems to be amiss is the dispenser UI, since it’s not allowing the customer to change settings. So a good problem statement here would be: dispenser UI unresponsive. The dispenser UI becomes your LOI. Simple as that.

Let’s try one more. This time, it’s a double wall oven:

The customer says, “I tried baking some cookies in the upper oven but they weren’t cooked through when my timer went off. I tried again, and the same thing happened. I had to bake them in the lower oven, which works fine, but I don’t like using it as much as the top one.” The customer’s husband (a famous brain surgeon) says that this problem started after running convection speed cook. He says that the convection fan runs fine, but there must be a short in it that’s causing the problem. He also says that you shouldn’t come out unless you bring a new convection fan motor with you.

Boy, this brain surgeon sure sounds serious. Should we start studying the convection fan’s circuit and put a fan motor on order?

Of course not. Just like last time, we’re ignoring any diagnoses we get from the customers. Moreover, it’s far too early in our troubleshooting process to identify specific parts that need to be replaced. We’ll get to that a few steps down the road, but right now, we’re just concerned about what’s wrong with the appliance. And based on that bit about the cookies, it seems pretty clear that our problem statement here is poor heating in the upper oven. No need to speculate further at this point.

Now that you know how to boil a customer’s description down to a real problem statement, you’ve learned the first step of troubleshooting any appliance problem. There are, in fact, nine more steps as part of what we call the “Troubleshooting Ten-Step Tango,” which we teach in our appliance repair courses here at Master Samurai Tech. Click below to check out the Core Appliance Repair Training course and become a troubleshooting master.

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