I am currently crunching through Steve Litt’s brilliant series of books on Troubleshooting. I am hugely into general problem solving frameworks and his Universal Troubleshooting Process (UTP) is one of my favourites.
Today, whilst clearing my backlog on Instapaper I came across this Wired.com piece on legendary design firm IDEO. They use a simply process called “Design Thinking” that they claim is at the heart of their stunning successes:
Practically speaking, the approach isn’t complicated. In stages, it goes like this: firstly, immersion, whereby the designers research the problem by plunging themselves into it – talking to the people they’re trying to help, working with them, interviewing experts. Secondly, synthesis – whereby they gather together their findings and look for patterns. Third, ideation – brainstorming solutions to the real problems identified by stage two. Then comes prototyping, making mock-ups of solutions to try out against the problem. After that comes the product. Only at the end, at the prototyping stage, are judgements made; until then, all ideas are given equal weight.
This methodology is radical in that it differs from traditional approaches to business strategy in two key ways. Whereas in many companies the concept for a new product may have already been based on, say, an idea from the marketing department with a designer later brought in to make it look pretty, design thinking places the designer at the heart of the innovation process. Secondly, the methodology gives a firm framework within which a wider team can work. It takes the cliché of the lone creative mind being struck with genius, and replaces it with a process that a whole team can follow. Creativity, therefore, isn’t a thing that magically appears, but a process you work through.
From: Reinventing British manners the Post-It way – Wired.co.uk
I can see similarities to Ken Watanabe’s simplified problem solving methodology as presented in his best-selling children’s “Problem Solving 101”
1. Understand the current situation current (Immersion)
2. Identify root cause (Sythesis)
3. Develop an effective action plan (Ideation)
4. Execute until solved, making modifications as necessary (Prototyping)
You can also see similarities between IDEO’s framework and Dan Roam’s framework for proble solving through visual thinking as outlined in “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures“. In the book Roam explores a four stage process for solving any problem with visual thinking:
1. Look (Immerse/ Understand)
2. See (sythesis / Identify patters / root cause)
3. Imagine (Ideation / Plan)
4. Show (Prototype / Execute)
How do these map to the Universal Troubleshooting Process (UTP)?
The UTP shares the core troubleshooting steps with the other three (3, 4,6,7 and 8), but it has some seemingly anachronous and superfluous steps (1,2,5,9 and 10). I say “seemingly” because experience has taught me that the Universal Troubleshooting Process steps are all necessary and in the right order.
It is aimed more at professional, routine troubleshooters and as such addresses the important psychological factors and habits that contribute to long-term effectiveness.
I cannot do this process justice in a few lines, but here is summary:
1. Prepare – This is about having the right attitude and mindset for troubleshooting as well as the required tools, skills and information. For professional troubleshooters (like Technical Support agents) attitude is one of the most important elements in their professional quality and success.
2. Make damage control plan – This is iatrogenic prevention i.e. do not make things worse. If forces you to think of consequences before trying pot luck fixes.
3. Get a complete and accurate symptom description– Here the UTP shares a step with the first principle of the other three (i.e. Look / Immerse/ Understand). In the UTP thi9s is usually achieved by creating a simple block diagram off the problem system so as to understand elements and relationships.
4. Reproduce the symptom – This is part of fully understanding and verifying the current situation. You verify the symptoms and measure them.
5. Do the appropriate corrective maintenance – This step is again targeted at professional troubleshooters. So many problems are caused by bad maintenance and fixed by routine maintenance, that often it is worth running the standard best practice maintenance procedures over the system and seeing of that fixes the issue.
6. Narrow it down to the root cause – This is the core step. Often it is a process in itself as you look from problem patterns, isolate elements of the system and systematically disqualify them as candidates for root cause. Eventually you generate a most likely root cause hypothesis and proceed to step 7.
7. Repair or replace the defective component – Here you generate a plan to test the hypothesis by fixing, replacing or implementing a work-around for the root cause.
8. Test – You now apply your fix and test to ensure the problem is indeed solved.
9. Take pride in your solution – This is another psychologically important steps to help prevent burn-out and boost morale.
10. Prevent future occurrence of this problem – This is simple operational best practice. You learn from your problems, document your solutions and new knowledge, you modify systems and procedures to ensure the problem does not reoccur, or you can respond quickly and effectively.
This universal troubleshooting procedure has been a vital tool for my team and I in beating some extremely tough problems, sometimes involving desperate customers begging us to fix badly broken massively complex undocumented systems and us successfully finding and fixing the root cause problems in 24 hours where the system designers could not succeed for months.
I also heartily recommend the Dan Roam and Ken Watanabe books referred to above. They are both brilliant and accessible.