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Case 70: Twenty rules for troubleshooting

09.01.2012  |  Sofronas, T.,  Consulting Engineer, Houston, Texas

Keywords: [pumps] [bearings] [oil rings] [lubrication oil] [maintenance]

In previous Engineering Case History columns, I have discussed checklists and their value in avoiding errors during startups. While the rules cannot replace common sense or a logical and methodical approach, they can help avoid embarrassing situations. Here are 20 rules that are most helpful in troubleshooting:

Rule 1

Never assume anything. “The new bearings are in stores, and they will be there if there is a failure” is an assumption. The bearings may not be in inventory; likewise, they can be corroded, damaged or, worse, the wrong size.

Rule 2

Follow the data. The shaft failed due to a bending failure, because the bearing failed, because the oil system failed, because the maintenance schedule was extended. This is following the data.

Rule 3

Don’t jump to a cause. Most of us want to come up with the most likely cause for a failure or other situation immediately. Such causes are usually based on our past experience, which may not be valid for this particular failure.

Rule 4

Calculation is better than speculation. A simple analysis is worth more than someone who tries to base the cause on past experiences.

Rule 5

Get input from others but realize they could be wrong. Most individuals want to be helpful and provide input as to the cause. However, such input may not be credible.

Rule 6

When you have conclusive data adhere to your principles. Safety issues are a good example. Your position may not be readily accepted by others because of budget, contract or time constraints. Before taking a stand, have other senior technical people agree with you because it could affect your career.

Rule 7

Management doesn’t want to hear bad news. Do not just discuss the failure and the problems it can cause to management. Present good options that can also be used at other plant locations to avoid similar failures.

Rule 8

Management doesn’t like wish lists. Only present what is needed, not what you would like to have. Adhering to company standards or national codes is usually a good approach.

Rule 9

Management doesn’t like confusing data. Keep technical jargon to a minimum and present the information as clear as possible with illustrations, photos, models and examples.

Rule 10

Management doesn’t like expensive solutions. Only present one or two cost-effective solutions with options, costs and timing.

Rule 11

Admit when you are wrong and obtain additional data. Admitting to being wrong is one of the most difficult acts. When other data contradicts yours, accepting the truth must be done; otherwise, you will look foolish.

Rule 12

Understand what results you are seeking. The analysis should be done to determine why the rotor cracked—not to redesign the machine. Too often, we get so involved in the analysis that we forget to just solve the problem.

Rule 13

Look for the simplest explanation first. For example, a new drive belt was installed too tight and then broke the shaft.

Rule 14

Look for the least cost and easiest solution. You need to understand what caused the failure first. For example, if a drive belt was too tight, then train the machinists on the correct tightening procedure. Put a placard on the equipment explaining the procedure clearly and include caution areas.

Rule 15

Analytical results, tests or metallurgical results should agree. When the metallurgical analysis says it was a fatigue failure and your analysis says it was a sudden impact, someone is in error. They should both indicate the same failure mode.

Rule 16

Trust your intuition. When you feel something is wrong but can’t prove it, it’s time to do an analysis and get additional data.

Rule 17

Utilize your trusted colleagues to confirm your approach. Talking with my engineering and field colleagues has been the most useful method in finding the true cause of a problem.

Rule 18

Similar failures usually have happened before. It is your job, as the reliability or maintenance engineer to survey your company and the literature for the cause of similar failures and to determine if it is useful data for troubleshooting this failure.

Rule 19

Always have others involved when analyzing high-profile failures. When safety, legal or major production issues are involved, it is unwise to make critical decisions on your own. This is the time for a team approach so that nothing is missed. Also involve others to develop and implement the final solution.

Rule 20

Someone usually knows the failure cause. It has been my experience from interviewing engineers, operators, machinists and technicians that some of the plant staff usually knew the true cause of a failure. A good interviewing procedure is an important part of the troubleshooting process. HP

The author 

Dr. Tony Sofronas, P.E., was worldwide lead mechanical engineer for ExxonMobil Chemicals before retiring. He now owns Engineered Products, which provides consulting and engineering seminars on machinery and pressure vessels. Dr. Sofronas has authored two engineering books and numerous technical articles on analytical methods. Early in his career, he worked for General Electric and Bendix, and has extensive knowledge of design and failure analysis for various types of equipment. 

Have your say
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    All fields are compulsory.

Abhilash Nair

Dear Dr. Tony, excellent insight into problem solving basics. I liked Rule 16 the most :)
Thanks again.

Dr. T. Sofronas

Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I certainly hope they help you in your careers.

Nino Zuñiga campos

Excelente artículo.

Abdul Aziz Ansari

Helpful for upcoming engineers and troubleshooters as well.

Eduardo Sandi

These rules could help to technical people who wants to be prepared to the 21st Century which they must learn, unlearn and relearn technical material according to the new technologies.

Dharmendra patel

shared rules of trouble shooting are extracts of engineering experience. I must congratulate the author for sharing such a most incredible and guiding keys for technocrat!!!
Thanks a lot.

Sharvan Jha

These all rules are gems for young engineer to understand engineering world. Thanks for sharing these Gems.

Ahmed Mostafa

awesome , thank you .


They are statements of facts,undue familiarity with the sytems and absolut dependent on ''I HAVE BEEN DOING IT FOR 20 YRS'' can put you in real trouble!

Chaudhry Muhammad Anwar

Wise guide for young engieers and goog refresher for not-young-ones.



Amitava Banerjee

Dear Dr. Tony ,
Excellent comprehension of Trouble shooting

Tin Oo

Very useful and applicable to maintenance of all industries.

Could you please provide a link to the previous case histories?

Tin Oo

Vijay Joshi

Tony, You have shared exceptional learning with engineering community. Resolving technical problems requires methodical approach as outlined in the article. Thanks.


Indeed, we need more expert like Tony even in other branch of science. His common sense approach is very simple to grasp and understand.

César Morales

This article has an extraordinary value. Thank you very much Tony!

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