That brought to mind a conversation with another woman whose car was in several times for the same problem. She commented that these guys simply plugged her car into a computer and replaced whatever the computer program said to replace. She'd spent lots of money, but the problem was still with her. Could a computer program deduce a bad ground, or a loose nut, or corrosion causing a short between two wires? I doubt it.
My 1967 Dodge's brake lights wouldn't go on, so I took it to Perfection Auto Care in Reseda, CA. It took 2 mechanics an hour and a half, plus a replaced brake light switch, a replaced bright light switch, and a replaced bulb, before they found the real problem -- a bad ground in the rear drivers side light housing. A little sandpaper and SHAZAM, it's worked for months. The turning point in the repair was when the parking lights went on without turning them on, and this symptom could be toggled by moving the light housing. But what if those mechanics had been slaves to their "diagnostic computer", or just hadn't had the years of experience they had had? I'd have had half the car replaced without fixing it.
Then there's the saga of my wife's 87 Buick. Four replaced computers in the life of the warrantee, and it still stalled on the freeway. Looked like a typical mid-80's GM lemon, a Roger Smith Special. I suggested she take it to Bill Murphy Buick in Culver City, CA., who had done good work for me before. She handed the car to the Murphy techs with a complete symptom description. The verdict? A cable connected to the computer was intermittent. I'll bet they found it by scoping the computer and wiggling everything -- general maintenance. The computer had always been OK, the cable was feeding it garbage. Garbage in, garbage out. The Roger Smith Special has been a wonderful car ever since.
The point of the previous four paragraphs is this: There are some problems, very hard to solve analytically, which are easy to solve with appropriate general maintenance. That's why Do the Appropriate General Maintenance" is step 5, just before step 6, "Narrow It Down". The effective Troubleshooter knows how to use General Maintenance to best advantage.
General Maintenance allows solutions with a minimum of expended brainpower. It's elegant in its simplicity and can be done many ways. This issue contains several articles on Appropriate General Maintenance, as well as a fictional short story called "The Man Who Banned General Maintenance".
Each of us has his or her own approach to Appropriate General Maintenance, optimized to our habits and abilities. As you read this issue, see how it applies to you. Where do you agree or disagree? Does it offer info that you find helpful? And remember, if you're a Troubleshooter, this is your magazine. Enjoy!
The second way Appropriate General Maintenance boosts productivity is by preemptively striking against the toughest problems. A great example would be checking to make sure a computer's motherboard was screwed down tightly, and grounded properly. Say a grounding screw on the motherboard wasn't making contact because of a misplaced insulating washer. That might create a "current loop", which erroneously triggers certain logic circuitry under certain conditions, which causes a "won't boot" symptom description. A 30 second inspection would reveal the bad ground. Barring that, what are your alternatives?
Still more amazing, when training was over, he out-performed me. At least for the first 6 months. I had a BSEE, he had, um, he had -- hey, what did he have anyway? Whatever it was, it wasn't rocket science. I heard it through the grapevine. The kid wasn't much with electronics, but he could move heaven and earth with a heat gun, freon, and tuner spray. Six months later, I developed a sure fire way for narrowing down problems (divide and conquer), and left the kid in the dust. A year later I realized I should clean the switches and controls and wiggle circuit boards before starting in on a detailed narrow-down. It wasn't until ten to twelve years later that I understood the full significance of what the kid had been doing.
It's not rocket science. A young kid with little training and maybe average intelligence made a living with it. It took me ten years to fully master. Hey, who's the rocket scientist anyway?
This leaves the Troubleshooter with three options:
#2 is what we all try to achieve, as it's the surest way to a fix. However, it's often impossible, and usually time consuming.
That leaves #3, General Maintenance, which we'll define to include non-rigorous thermal and mechanical toggling (freon and heat gun, grabbing things and wiggling them). General maintenance, including the more expensive forms which wouldn't be appropriate in a reproducible (for instance, re-seating every card and cable in a computer), is often the most economical approach to intermittent problems and should be tried first.
The Universal Troubleshooting Process
1. Get the Attitude
6. Narrow it down to the root cause
Contrast Step 5 with steps 2, 4, 6, and 7. Without the latter steps, a solution usually cannot be reached. Without a symptom description and symptom reproduction, the tech doesn't know what problem to solve. Without narrowing it down, it's impossible to solve the problem unless the problem is a General Maintenance item. And without repairing or replacing the bad component, the system remains in its defective state. Not so with general maintenance.
It's perfectly possible to narrow down a problem to a dirty battery terminal, a bad solder connection, or a lack of transmission fluid. It's just time consuming, and brain intensive. By treating as general maintenance items which are easy to check and likely to cause problems, Troubleshooters have found they can produce more with less time and less thought.
Appropriate General Maintenance works its magic by allowing the Troubleshooter to do the following:
Perhaps the greatest example of a "gamblers choice" Appropriate General Maintenance is now obsolete. Some readers may remember that early radios (before about 1965) used vacuum tubes instead of transistors. Vacuum tubes wore out regularly, as opposed to the other components which were fairly reliable. You could repair 90% of all tube radio problems within 1/2 hour. You'd start by visually inspecting for blown (literally exploded) capacitors, and replacing them. Then you'd test each tube in a tube tester and replace the defective ones. General Maintenance. No though, little time. The other 10% were a real problem due to the non-modular layout and design of tube radios, making use of Appropriate General Maintenance vital.
Depending on the repair facility's relationship with the customer, further testing may be done after Preventative Maintenance fixes a problem. For instance, if the tech and the user are employees of the same business and have a good relationship, it's likely they'll agree that the tech will do no long term testing (like checking the car's charging system), but instead to have the user "long term test" the maintenance repair, with the knowledge that the repair hasn't been proven conclusively. On the other hand, if substantial money has changed hands, or if there's not enough trust between tech and user, or if safety is an issue, the tech will need to do complete testing. In the car example, he'd need to test the charging capacity of the old battery, check the voltage output of the car's charging system over time, and test for current draw when the car and all its lights and accessories are "off".
Think I was foolish? Let the non-foolish cast the first stone. How many times have good techs ignored the exact phrasing of computer error messages ("I think it said "system error""). How many times have they not looked for a file named in a "file not found" error message? How many times have they not investigated the config.sys FILES= statement when a "too many open files" error occurs?
Observe, observe, observe. Treat anything obvious as a gift, and use it.
In these cases, make sure the customer knows this is an educated guess, not a guaranteed solution, and that he or she must pay for the service, not the outcome. Make sure he or she agrees to this, and if not, consider declining the repair.
The chain goes public, and soon after, stockholders demand cost containment procedures. After they demand Mr. Wilson turn a scrutinizing eye toward the technician's paychecks, Mr. Wilson resigns. Quite happily, the board of directors replaces him with Clifton Carsliegh. Mr. Carsliegh is "one of their own", a penny-pinching former CFO of an almost-Fortune 500.
Carsliegh's first pronouncement is to eliminate General Maintenance. General Maintenance is simply a costly "gift" to the customer. A "bribe" to remain a customer. Henceforth, the customer would receive the repair he paid for -- nothing more, nothing less. A bold step, with bold results.
Phil Carson is a tech at the Evanston facility. He's been with Nagle Automotive since he graduated high school nineteen years ago. You might say he's grown to manhood under Nagle. Things are great. His paycheck easily pays the mortgage, feeds his wife and two kids, and there's even enough left over to save a little. Unlike his counterparts at other garages, his paycheck is rising with his skill level.
Carson's under the hood of an old Plymouth. The symptom is a loud, ugly sounding hum occurring while driving, and varying with engine speed. Normally, after reproducing the symptom, he spends the next two minutes of every repair checking fluid levels, battery terminals and battery voltage. Not today -- the new CEO has declared General Maintenance to be out, and the shop manager is enforcing it. Phil Carson drives the car over to a special bay with a torque load, runs the car at a simulated 20mph, and starts his tests. He can't make the problem occur except under load, so he suspects either the transmission or possibly a bearing. He does a series of tests on the transmission which indicate the transmission isn't at fault. With the car turned off and in neutral, he takes out the spark plugs to eliminate compression, and turns the crankshaft by hand. Normal resistance, no tight spots, normal play. Bearings probably OK.
Listening carefully, he notices a softer version of the hum even in neutral when revving the engine to about 1800 RPM. He finds a fan belt, a little looser than he'd like, that seems to be vibrating excessively. He doesn't think that's the problem, but he tightens it just in case. Under load, the symptom's still there. Removing all the belts, he runs the engine at load. The symptom's gone. Putting belts back one at a time, he sees he can toggle the symptom with the power steering pump belt. Suspecting the power steering pump, he inspects visually. There's evidence of a slow leak. Removing the cap, he sees the power steering pump almost empty. After filling it, he tests again. The symptom's gone. An hour of work that would have been five minutes with Appropriate General Maintenance.
Phil Carson's allegiance to Nagle Automotive dwarfed by that of the shop manager, Carl Norton. Carl had been a sidewalk mechanic, making a few bucks here and a few there. Carl had gotten in a little trouble, done a little time. Getting out, his parole officer set up an appointment with Bob Wilson, who at the time was manager of the Oak Park facility. Mr. Wilson was a straight shooter -- "you play ball with me, I'll play ball with you. Otherwise, you're on the street, and likely back in jail. Norton, I'm going teach you a specific troubleshooting technique, and I expect you to use it every single time." Norton had done what Mr. Wilson had said, become a top technician, then become manager of a small shop, then a bigger one, and finally Evanston. The Evanston shop had the highest numbers in the Chicago area. Yes, Carl had a lot to be thankful for.
"Carl, I just had an hour repair that would have been five minutes if you'd let me check the fluid levels first."
"Just calm down, Phil, and tell me about it".
"The problem was a low fluid level in power steering pump, causing a loud humming and buzzing sound. Since checking fluid levels is General Maintenance, I couldn't do it. Instead I spent an hour troubleshooting it down to the root cause. I suppose we could get the customer's OK to replace the leaky pump, and pad the repair time a little to recover some of that time, but Carl, it's just bad business".
"Phil, it's important that you and all the techs continue our new policy of no General Maintenance. Every time you have an experience like this, you come to me, and I'll write it up. When the time comes, the information will be there".
Larry Mages is the audio tech at the Milwaukee, Wisconsin facility. His boss just resigned over this "no general maintenance" thing, and now the District Manager (Southern Wisconsin District) is watching everyone like a hawk. A defective car stereo lies disassembled on his service bench. The soldering on the main circuit board is hideous. He is re-soldering every connection on the board when the District Manager's voice croons over his shoulder "That's against the rules now, Mages. No General Maintenance. No shotgun stuff. The new policy is surgical accuracy in problem removal. I want you to troubleshoot that problem to the one defective solder joint, not waste your time re-manufacturing the customer's unit for free". Mages counts to ten, then says neutrally "OK Boss".
Mages works an hour and a half pinpointing the first two bad connections. While he's working on the third, the district manager again appears over his shoulder.
"Mages, it appears you're a great solder jockey but I don't know about you as a technician. You've been at this thing for an hour and a half".
Cool as ice, Larry Mages begins soldering all connections. The DM is furious.
"You're disobeying direct orders, Mages. You're fired".
Mages continues soldering. The DM is turning purple. "You're fired, Mages".
Larry Mages continues soldering til the last joint's done, plugs in the unit, tests it, and finds it works. He installs it in the car. He's just completed the installation and in-car testing when the police show up.
"Your boss tells me you've been fired and refused to leave", the older cop says.
"Must be some misunderstanding", says Mages. "I thought he said today was my last day. If he wants me to leave right now, that's fine. Mages gathers his tools and departs through the back door, accompanied by the police. His former co-workers furtively look up from their work, then pretend they never looked.
At the first pay phone, Mages calls the customer, tells him he can pick up his car, and just for fun tells the customer to ask for Larry Mages by name. Two days later Mages is operating his own automotive audio business out of his van, and making more money than ever before.
Martin (Marty to his friends) Cash struts the concrete of the East Chicago Indiana facility, hands clasped behind his back. He's clearly on inspection, and the techs are terrified. He calls for silence, then gives them the word. "Yesterday Clifton told me no General Maintenance, no exceptions. Is that understood?"
Cash pauses for effect. He loves the effect of mentioning the CEO by first name. This is the third corporation he's ridden into on Carsliegh's coattails, and everyone knows it. For now he's the District Manager, Northern Indiana District. Soon he'll be corporate.
His first week in Indiana, he'd found resistance to the no general maintenance edict from the East Chicago facility, so he'd fired a tech for insubordination. It was a cooked up affair, but he could probably make it stand up in court. The employee had been denied unemployment because of his extensive list of infractions. Will Matson, manager of East Chicago, had signed the paperwork. He's fifty one years old, with three children still in the house. Martin (Marty to his friends) smiled as he reflected on the ease of controlling a man through his family's welfare.
At first productivity had gone way down. The techs had blamed the no general maintenance edict. Martin brushed that aside with an unspoken, unwritten policy -- punch in for eight, but work til the work is done. Most employees in his district now work ten hours for eight hours pay. The guys in the East Chicago facility work twelve. His numbers are being notices at corporate, as Northern Indiana is the only district whose productivity didn't decline after the edict. There had been one small problem. An East Chicago employee had gone out on stress leave. That's OK. Nobody'd believe him about being "forced" to work twelve hours. And nobody'd support him. They all had mouths to feed.
Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), a secret meeting is taking place at the Summerdale Avenue Shop. The participants wouldn't have wanted it known that they were there, but I can tell you that Carl Norton, former manager of the Evanston facility, freshly demoted to technician, chaired the meeting. At his side is Phil Carson, who is now a manager but formerly worked under Carl. Phil Carson's wife, the mother of his two children, had told him she could live with any kind of poverty except poverty of the soul, and that he should follow his heart. There are roughly thirty additional participants, mostly old-timers remembering what Nagle had been like when they used the Universal Troubleshooting Process.
Norton's gavel (a wrench) descends, marking the start of the meeting. "Guys, Nagle's doomed. We all know it. Nothing can save it. We're gonna lose our jobs. If we play ball with Martin Cash we might keep em a few more months, but what's that worth?".
"Easy for you to say, Norton. Your kids are grown, you got no wife, if worst comes to worse you sleep on a park bench. That's a luxury most of us just don't have", came a voice from the middle of the room. It was Chester Carter, husband, and father of six, three of them under the age of ten.
"Hey Chester, do I look like a guy with no wife and kids?" asks Phil Carson. "I got one in college, and one in high school, and a second mortgage on the house to compensate for decreased paychecks the last two years. But ya know what? That's EXACTLY why I'm up here with Carl. We have a choice. We can die slow, or we can risk dying fast, but maybe come out of this with more money than we ever dreamed."
"Ya talk big, Carson, but I don't hear any details. I think you're full of hot air", snorts Johnny Bargen. A muttering of agreement becomes a belligerent crescendo. Bargen had said his line exactly as he'd rehearsed with Carl and Phil.
"You want the details, here's the details" shouts Carl, taking charge. "We're gonna form a corporation, and make a garage chain like Nagle was in Bob Wilson's time. We're gonna pool our money, buy the facilities, and start up. About a third of us will be managers to start out with, the rest soon after. Nagle's collapse will leave a vacuum in the marketplace, and we're gonna fill it. We'll each be part owners, so if we're successful we'll make serious money."
"Pardon me, Carl, but last time I looked I didn't have fifty thousand dollars hanging around". That's Chester interrupting, and he looks really mad.
Carl continues calmly. "We're each gonna invest three thousand. If ya can't get it, borrow it. Just get it."
Jimmy Whittmore speaks up. "Carl, there are thirty people in this room. If they all come in, that's ninety thousand dollars. How are you going to open up more than one or two facilities for that price? And one or two won't feed all thirty." Jimmy has a slow, winning smile, an Oklahoma drawl, and just recently started to shave. Pretty girls come from miles around to visit him at the shop, but he's way to young and free to take them seriously. It's hard to realize he's a Nagle veteran, having joined six years ago at the age of fifteen. When he graduated high school two years later, he came on full time. Jimmy's smart. He was on the verge of being promoted to manager when Nagle hit the skids. For Jimmy, some day never came.
"Should we tell them now?" asks Phil, creating suspense.
"Yeah", says Carl. "Guys, I talked to Bob Wilson last night. I tried to convince him to come back and lead Nagle, but he was having none of it. He says Cash and Carsliegh have sucked it dry, and there's nothing left. He's having fun where he is, so he doesn't want to get involved."
There's a groan throughout the room. The mention of Bob Wilson brightened things up, word of his non-involvement made the mood darker than ever.
"Hey guys, that's not the end of the story", Carl Norton shouts to be heard. "Bob Wilson says if I get twenty ex-Nagle guys, and he says he means guys from the old days who really believe in the Universal Troubleshooting Process, to put up three thousand apiece, he'll pop for five hundred thousand. For that he wants a one-third ownership of the company. He doesn't want to run the company, he'll just take his profits and make his voice heard like any other big stock holder." Carl stops talking ands surveys the effect of his speech. There is five seconds of silence.
"I'm in!", says Jimmy Whittmore.
"Not so fast" cautions Chester Carter. "How do we know this business will succeed? Three thousand's a lot of money to me, and as owners we might end up working for free."
"Let me answer Chester" says Phil Carson. "Chester, you've been a Nagle manager for eleven years, and your shops have always done well. Most of the others in this room have been successful Nagle managers. Knowing how to run our shops is definitely not going to be a problem. Wilson's backing us, so neither is capital. That leaves just marketing. Chester, remember our marketing before Carsliegh took over. There was none. It was word of mouth. We exceeded everyone else's performance so much that we put em all out of business. We did it with the Universal Troubleshooting Process, and we still know how to do it. Chester, do you believe in the Universal Troubleshooting Process?
Chester stands a little taller as he replies: "You bet I do!". Chester will deny it to this day, but I was there, and I can tell you, there was a tear in his eye.
Chester continues. "OK, I'm in."
All resistance is gone. Twenty three guys (scuse me, two were women) sign up at three thousand a stake. Summerdale Automotive (named after the street) is born.
The man replies: "Carl Norton was the first CEO, during the tough years. Lots of the stores weren't yet profitable. Luckily, Chester Carter's shop made mounds of money and put all its neighborhood competitors out of business, including a Nagle facility. Carter quickly started three other shops, equally as profitable. Lucky thing, because we were under underfunded, and Nagle was still a strong competitor. They sued us several times. We almost went broke. But eventually we won a judgement against them, for restraint of trade. Carsliegh died broke, and Cash went to prison on embezzlement charges. After he got out of prison, he was never the same. Oh, and you remember Chester, the guy who was so worried about his six little children? Well, each of those kids is a multi-millionaire, and three of them own Summerdale Automotive franchises."
The man continues: "The stress from those early years was too much, and Carl Norton had a heart attack. He resigned for health reasons. Bob Wilson, at age seventy, temporarily took the reigns. He tried to groom Chester Carter as a successor, but Chester said he was making too much money to be CEO. Bob Wilson turned to Phil Carson, who reluctantly took over. Under Carson, Summerdale Automotive blossomed into a national chain with over four hundred facilities. He created Process Education Committee, headed by Johnny Bargen, whose job it was to see that every tech in every shop and franchise followed correct Troubleshooting Process. Johnny Bargen is as much responsible as anyone for the success during the Carson era. Two years ago, Phil Carson retired and I took over."
"And that's how you became CEO?", asks the boy.
"That's how", Jimmy Whittmore tells his twelve year old son.
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http://www.carinfo.com/repair.html: Documents Sears Auto Centers' 1992 fall from grace -- unnecessary installed parts.
http://www.alexanderlaw.com/class.html: Documents Sears Automotive Center Consumer Litigation, Action No. C-92-2227, Honorable Robert H. Schnacke.
Bill Murphy Buick (310) 837-1211.
Perfection Auto Care (818) 343-6789.