Does It Need To Be Fixed?

The Lone Wreck
Thankfully, repair is optional.
(image: Kenny Louie, license: CC BY 2.0)

When you’re helping someone fix a broken machine and it seems like a resolution won’t be forthcoming soon, one of the best questions you can ask is: “What are you trying to accomplish?” They may look at you funny and say “Duh! I want to fix this stupid thing!” Of course they do, but why? What means to an end is this machine providing? Identifying and focusing on the desired outcome will make finding workarounds easier.

Given that it’s much better to problem-solve in a low stress environment, where you have ample time and no one’s breathing down your neck, the troubleshooter has a tremendous incentive to provide alternatives. The strategies and virtues presented in The Art Of Troubleshooting will help you be that superstar under pressure, but as exciting as that may be, I think you will prefer the low-pressure option for your day-to-day routine.

Original Problem Desired Outcome Possible Workaround
“The printer is broken…” “I want to print my presentation for tomorrow’s meeting.” “Can you use the printer in the conference room instead?”
“My car won’t start…” “I need to get to work.” “Can you take a cab, ride the bus or get a lift from a co-worker?”
“The magical Interwebs are broken…” “I need to send this email.” “Can you go across the street to the cafe and use their Internet connection to send your email?”
“The lights won’t turn on…” “I need to see to be able to do my job.” “Can you temporarily move to a place where there’s more light?”

Always frame alternatives with the sentiment of “I’m on your side, I’m committed to helping you solve your problem, and I’m trying to get you back in the game as quickly as possible.” If you’re required to help (i.e., it’s in your job description), people may think you’re trying to avoid doing your job by offering a workaround. Showing you have their best interests in mind, along with a candid explanation of the situation, is typically the best combination: “Listen, I’m going to be totally honest with you, I don’t know what’s wrong and it could take a whole day to figure it out…” Most people will gladly accept a workaround if they know it’s their only option to keep moving forward.

Must We?

Asking “Do we have to fix this?” isn’t evasion, it’s a reminder that the way things were is not the same as the way things should or could be. The underlying premise of troubleshooting is that we want to get back to where we started from, to the way the world was before a breakdown occurred. But, just as in life, going back to the way things were isn’t always a good idea. After the storm had passed, I’ve often been grateful that a breakdown occurred. I may not have appreciated how the introspection was thrust upon me, but failures were invitations to reexamine our systems and procedures.

As a troubleshooter, you’re usually focused on the problem to the exclusion of all else. It may not enter your mind that your time might be better spent NOT fixing it. Woah…not fix it?! That’s not a nod to laziness, but simply an invitation to consider devoting your scarce resources and energy to something better. Let’s examine the scenarios where repair is suboptimal:

A Workaround Is Better

While investigating failures, I often see things that…just don’t compute. “Why did they do it this way?” is the question associated with these moments. Candidly, I’ll admit that it’s frequently “Why did I do it that way?” A machine is installed to do a particular job, its place and specifications fixed, but the world keeps on changing. Later on, when it finally breaks down, what it is was doing or how it was doing it might not make sense anymore.

For this reason, you’ll often discover redundancies and unnecessary steps while troubleshooting. These will be opportunities to bypass the broken part or machine entirely! “Why is our Internet traffic flowing through this broken switch and then through the router? If I patch it directly, I can restore service and eliminate a single point of failure.”

But be careful, my legion of White Knights who ride in to save the day! Trying to be clever in the heat of the moment is like:

“…trying to take the master carpenter’s place. When you handle the master carpenter’s tools, chances are that you’ll cut your hand.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (verse 74)

Of course, this doesn’t apply if you just happen to be a master carpenter.

When I first discovered that I could simply decline fixing a downed system because I had found a better workaround, I thought I was pretty cool. But, reality always has the last word. The system you’re working on was designed, installed, or assembled in a certain way, usually for a good reason: can you truly say you’ve been privy to all of the discussions, design meetings, prior incidents, etc. which resulted in the system you’re now trying to modify on-the-fly?

That’s why, if the stakes are high, this option is only for the 10th-degree-blackbelt-who-Chuck-Norris-calls-for-help kinda superhero. Maybe you do know this system like the back of your hand. Maybe you’ve been at every meeting, been involved in every design decision and understand why the resulting system looks like it does. If you’re that sure, go ahead and pull the trigger, Rambo.

In a low-pressure situation, be open to improvisation. Again, you may discover a workaround that is superior to the original and doesn’t require fixing the broken system!

You Were Planning To Upgrade Anyway

If you’ve been waiting for an excuse to upgrade, there’s no better time than after a failure. Often, the broken system may not be able to be repaired, at least not in a reasonable amount of time. You needed downtime to upgrade? Again, you’ve got it on a silver platter. Seize the opportunities that life presents! Just make sure you employ sound procedures to ensure the upgrade goes successfully, especially if it’s on the spur of the moment. A data collection program, regression tests, or checklists are all great ways to verify everything went smoothly.

Swap It

You don’t have to impress me with your troubleshooting skills. Grab the spare (you do have spares, right?), replace the failed system, and move on. Depending on the severity of the problem, you may not be able to troubleshoot your way out. If you want to find the root of the problem, give yourself the luxury of doing it later, when the pressure’s off. Or, send it back to the manufacturer and let them figure out what went wrong.

Always Have A “Plan B”

If you’re going to pursue any of these “don’t fix it” strategies, I highly recommend doing it as a parallel path to your troubleshooting efforts. Form a second team to investigate and implement your workaround. There’s nothing like a little healthy competition and it respects the maxim: “Always have a backup plan.”

*** Questions? Comments? Have a related troubleshooting story that you’d like to share? Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments section below! ***


  • Lao Tzu and Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), verse 74.


Add yours →

  1. The decision to fix something always has an economic component. The expected lifetime of the machine is a key factor. For example, fixing a stove in its 20th year when its expected lifetime is 10 years may not be a good idea even if you're entirely certain what's wrong with it and it's repair cost is minimal. It's a very bad idea if you don't know what the problem is and call a repairman in to tell you it will cost $300 to fix a $500 stove (new) and $100 just to tell you that. It is obvious that you could have saved $100 by ditching the old stove and buying new at the start. A fool would believe he/she saved $200 by calling the repairman in and fixing the old stove. The $500 new stove that's expected to last 10 years, basically costs $50 a year. Therefore if you repair the stove beyond its expected lifetime you are probably throwing your money away since you run the risk of something else going wrong soon. However, if you can repair the stove yourself and the cost of the part is just a few bucks then that might be O.K. economically speaking since there is a likelihood you can extend the lifetime a few months or more. But remember the cost of the new stove is only $50 a year so don't be paying too much for that part!


  2. Wrestler Jack,

    You make an excellent point that the decision to fix something (or not) includes an economic component. Your comments lead me to conclude that a dedicated article exploring this topic is in order. I have references to the economics of troubleshooting scattered throughout the book (e.g., a cost/benefit analysis of maintenance windows), but I think a chapter pulling it all together would be better. Thanks!

    I also had another thought: a core part of economics is studying how people apply their scarce resources among competing alternatives (expressed in concepts like “opportunity cost”). Troubleshooters grapple with these same issues when pursuing a fix: how best to spend your finite time, choosing among competing repair strategies, utilization of scarce resources (both material and human), etc. It seems like there's a lot that economics will have to say about troubleshooting and I look forward to figuring out what that is!


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