A Manager’s Role in Troubleshooting Problems
To manage means “to handle.” Managers handle the work that needs to be done (through others). They also handle obstacles, preferably troubleshooting problems proactively and permanently. Ideally, managers troubleshoot problems BEFORE they have adverse effects on the organization.
Troubleshooting means the act of discovering and resolving problems, disputes, or issues; to trace and correct faults; a systematic approach to addressing a problem.
Troubleshooting problems involves:
Determining why something isn’t working as intended or expected.
Identifying how to fix the root cause (not symptoms alone).
Making changes that permanently correct the situation.
Unfortunately, this managerial role is often misunderstood.
Troubleshooting Problems: What It’s Not
Being a problem solver doesn’t make you a troubleshooter. Lots of people solve problems reactively, repetitively, partially, superficially, or temporarily. Troubleshooting aims higher for proactive, one-time, complete, root cause, permanent fixes.
Let’s look at those contrasts in a deeper dive.
Troubleshooting is not reactive. If you’re addressing problems as they occur, when they urgently need attention, you’re not a troubleshooter. Troubleshooting is proactive. Troubleshooters are constantly on the lookout for problems, and they work to stay one step ahead of them.
Troubleshooting is not repetitive. If you’re solving the same problem over and over again, you’re not a troubleshooter. Troubleshooting gets to the root cause and doesn’t treat the symptoms alone.
Troubleshooting is not a partial fix. If you’re taking care of part, but not all, of the problem, you’re not a troubleshooter. Troubleshooting identifies and resolves all aspects of a problem.
Troubleshooting is not superficial. If you’re doing the bare minimum to make a problem tolerable or to mask it, you’re not a troubleshooter. Troubleshooting goes deep to fully understand and rectify the matter.
Troubleshooting is not temporary. If you’re taking care of something short-term, knowing it won’t last long-term, you’re not a troubleshooter. Troubleshooting provides permanent solutions.
To be a true troubleshooter, you’ll have to invest time upfront (to save more time in the long run). You’ll need to be future-focused and consider all the benefits that can be achieved when people aren’t bogged down by recurring nuisance issues.
Why Managers Don’t Troubleshoot
Most managers are problem solvers, not troubleshooters. They mean well, and they’re doing the best they know how to do in the midst of never-ending urgency, multiple demands, and too many plates to keep spinning.
These are some of the most common culprits that prevent managers from troubleshooting:
They don’t how to troubleshoot.
They don’t know the different between problem solving and troubleshooting.
They’re overburdened with frontline and non-functional work.
They’re unclear about the priorities within their role.
They haven’t recognized the downsides of repetitive, reactionary fixes.
They don’t think they have time or resources for permanent fixes.
They’re addicted to the adrenaline rush of swooping in to save the day.
They’ve become complacent or apathetic about recurring problems.
They feel overwhelmed by the idea of analyzing a root cause.
They conditioned to respond to what’s urgent vs. what’s important
Embedded in those common reasons is a fundamental gap in planning, with others, for continuous improvement. Because the primary responsibility of most managers is to handle today’s work, they don’t plan for the long-term or look at the bigger picture. They don’t see the benefits of making things easier, better, or faster for employees.
Without this awareness and the skills for troubleshooting, most are content to do the basics, day to day, even if means addressing the same recurring problems day after day. Few managers pause even long enough to realize how much time is wasted by tolerating problems instead of proactively fixing them. Temporarily addressing symptoms, knowing that the problem will soon resurface, is irresponsible.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of this problem is that it’s tolerated everywhere. It might even be inadvertently encouraged when there’s performance pressure for the short-term that includes implied messages about ignoring the long-term needs.
A Step-by-Step Guide for Troubleshooting Problems
Troubleshooting is a systematic approach. It’s not a reactive, Band-aid solution that provides temporary or superficial relief. To fully and permanently solve a problem, troubleshooting is worth the extra time and effort required for these steps:
STEP ONE: Understand the Problem
Resist the impulse to jump in with a quick fix. These reflective responses provide immediate gratification – they feel good for the fixer and they temporarily feel like relief for the person who raised the issue.
Despite that initial feeling, quick fixes often backfire. The real, underlying problem forces repeated superficial fixes, causes frustration, and wastes time as the same fix is made over and over again.
Here’s a classic workplace example. A shared desktop computer frequently freezes. The manager is the only one with the password. Several times a week, an employee has an urgent need to access the frozen computer. The manager “solves” the problem by rebooting it and logging in again. Troubleshooting would involve more than the temporary fix and would permanently address the root cause (faulty software? hardware? memory issues?).
If the manager is not skilled in the technical matters needed to understand the problem, bringing in someone with more expertise would be appropriate. The amount of time and productivity (possibly money) being lost to accepting the problem justifies intervention.
In preparation for the next step, the employees can help others understand the problem by logging the activities that precede the problem. Looking for common trigger events may help diagnostically. If the problem can be reproduced with the same circumstances, there will be a high degree of certainty about what’s causing it.
STEP TWO: Look for Root Cause(s) of the Problem
Once information has been gathered and the problem is well-understood, it’s time to pursue that pathway and get to the root cause. There could be multiple root causes, but it’s more likely that there are multiple potential root causes. Analysis here to look at all the possibilities will prevent making a fix that’s not the right fix.
In steps one and two, ask these kinds of questions to diagnose what’s happening:
Describe the problem that’s occurring.
What else is happening when this problem occurs?
What factors are commonly showing up when the problem occurs?
What other conditions might influence this problem?
Can the problem be reproduced when those factors and conditions are tested?
With questions like these, you’ll rule out factors that are not related to the problem, With our computer that freezes, for example, an employee who believes the problem always occurs at 4pm might be disproven when the time factor test shows no greater probability of occurrence than other times. That would eliminate “peak time” as an issue in the root cause.
STEP THREE: Isolate the Cause of the Problem
With the analysis available, pick the most likely cause of the problem. There may be some trial-and-error testing needed if there are multiple factors that potentially cause the problem. This method will help eliminate the ones that aren’t causing the problem.
Isolating the actual root cause is the only way to make the problem go away.
STEP FOUR: Solve the Problem
Once the most likely cause has been identified, the problem’s solution will be more apparent. Although the person fixing the problem might need to rely on a hypothesis about the root cause, there will be an opportunity to test the solution that’s most likely needed. If steps five and six don’t demonstrate that the actual root cause was currently isolated, it will be necessary to backtrack to steps three and four.
STEP FIVE: Test the Solution
Most managers (and others) implement a fix, check it off the list, and move on. When troubleshooting problems, the work isn’t done until the fix is certain to be a true remedy. As the solution is tested, there may be adjustments that become apparent. It may also become clear that this isolated fix isn’t the right one. Taking time to test the solution is better than calling it done “on a wing and prayer.”
The test is successful if the problem is not recurring. If problems remain, the problem is not fixed.
STEP SIX: Analyze the Effectiveness of the Solution
The problem is fixed, but the process still has two more steps. As a proactive troubleshooter, you wouldn’t want to inadvertently cause unintended consequences. You’ll want to check in, too, to make sure the solution is long-lasting and complete. Keep monitoring the system or situation.
STEP SEVEN: Document the Steps Taken
Once you’re certain that the root cause of the problem has been fully resolved, write down the steps taken to diagnose, solve, and test the solution. This will be useful if, in the future, the problem resurfaces. It may also help others who encounter similar problems.
Troubleshooting problems is a proactive and bigger picture play. It will, ultimately, make you more effective and less stressed than dealing with the same issues over and over again.
This is the final post in our 13-part series about the many hats that managers wear. Our supervisory skills program, available in multiple versions, is designed to help supervisors and managers understand all the responsibilities of their role.