How to Help Technicians Handle Electrical Problems

Feb. 14, 2014

Reprinted with the permission of Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of AEMP.

The traditional way of finding the next shop foreman or supervisor has been to choose the guy with the greatest knowledge and skill as a technician and give them the job. This is based on the assumption (usually correct) that this person will be able to guide the specific tasks the others perform to move equipment through the shop as quickly as possible. The supervisor will know the fastest way to get something done, and that’s always the key to success.

So it has been in the past, but current circumstances and the coming future have changed this management reality.

Dan Sullivan is a professional electrical diagnostic technician and trainer with 30 years of experience. He’s authored two books on electrical theory and diagnostics and has several patents for test equipment used by multiple OEMs. He owns his own training company. Sullivan can be reached at [email protected].

With the rapid increase in electrical and electronic systems on modern machines, holding on to the age-old method of finding the best technician in the shop and expecting that experience to work can be a disastrous choice. My experiences over the past 30 years have taught me that applying a mechanical thought process to an electrical problem is the main reason we struggle as much as we do to come to a successful answer.

Having taught more than 5,000 equipment and truck technicians since 1996, I’m convinced the tech’s skills of being able to read a schematic and meter and knowing basic principles of electrical theory and systems are absolutely critical. But the person managing that technician in this electrical world has an equal responsibility to know how to lead the process of electrical diagnosis and repair.

The Electrical Diagnosis Management Process

  • Don’t ask “what’s wrong,” ask “what’s right?”
  • Don’t let the technician go to the machine until all of the homework is done, and both of you have formulated a plan of attack.
  • Expect the answer and repair to be simple.
  • Guide the technician through the research phase (minimum 1 hour).
  • Allow sufficient time to get the system exposed for testing.
  • Do not accept a “part swap” solution unless all wires and circuits are tested.
  • Stress the importance of wiring as a cause.
  • Protect the tech from outside influence.
  • Understand that a 5-hour diagnostic can be normal.
  • Asking the questions “what’s wrong” and “how long will this take” is a huge and devastatingly harmful mistake. “What’s wrong” won’t be truly understood until after the diagnosis, so asking for an answer before that time is asking the tech to either say “I don’t know” or to lie. Neither is acceptable.
  • How long will it take?” It’ll be fixed 15 minutes after I find it.
  • Both the technician and the supervisor benefit from a slow and steady pace. When the technician learns, the supervisor learns, but only if the diagnostic is shared. Simply knowing a connector was corroded doesn’t teach. The process of learning why that connector had to be the problem teaches.

Supervisors often find great satisfaction in being the one with the know-how, and this is rightly deserved. However, any supervisor who claims to have the electrical diagnostic and repair process figured out by knowing every possible fault on every possible circuit in every possible system on every vehicle is mistaken.

The reality is that supervisors are usually just as clueless as the technician on the hunt, but admitting that is not always an easy thing to do. The good news is there’s an effective management technique that allows the supervisor to manage the diagnostic process, which will eventually lead to the correct diagnosis, which will then lead to the correct repair.

If this is executed properly, the supervisor learns at the same pace as the technician. In the end, both are more knowledgeable about the vehicle. Rather than knowing the answer before the task is started (the mechanical method), the supervisor is the expert who controls the diagnostic process that leads to increased efficiency and success. With electrical problems, it’s not a matter of knowing the answer, it’s knowing how to find the answer.

Because so much of the day is spent with nuts, bolts and impacts, most technicians tend to apply the standard mechanical picture to an electrical problem, which is a mistake. If you consider the differences in the relative times that each process involves, the reason becomes clear.

In a mechanical scenario, the diagnosis can take mere minutes. Even if the exact broken part isn’t known, the box it’s in can be disassembled and the culprit easily identified by the broken teeth, the scored shaft or the blown seal. The ability to visibly and instantly identify the problem satisfies the technicians’s ego, and the repair process begins with a swing of a hammer and the humming of a happy tune. There’s no confusion about what needs to be done, and everyone can bank on a predictable time and cost for the repair.

But in the case of an electrical scenario, the times are flipped.

A five-minute mechanical diagnosis leads to a four-hour pump change, and no one complains. But if it’s an electrical or electronic implement-control system, the diagnosis can take hours, and the repair will likely only take minutes. The problem is a lot of people complain about the five-hour diagnostic. Why? Because they’re thinking like a technician, not like an electrician.

It shocks and surprises people when I say a five-hour diagnosis is normal, but it is. They’re all willing to give someone eight hours for some huge mechanical repair, during which there are no complaints. But if that same electronic machine comes in with a mysterious fault in an unknown system, the technician is supposed to have the problem figured out in minutes, and complaints and grumbling are loud and long when it doesn’t happen.

Does this make sense? Eight hours is eight hours. If a track change and cylinder replacement take eight hours, then so does an electrical diagnosis and repair on an electronic dozer.

Mechanically, big equals big, but electrically, small equals big. What does this mean? If a transmission or final drive needs to be repaired or replaced, then big things are involved. Big cranes, big wrenches, big parts, big toolboxes and big egos.  Yet, electrically, an entire dragline shovel can be shut down because of a tiny bit of corrosion only 0.001 inch thick.

This is not an easy thing for big-ego technicians to handle. How can this itty-bitty speck of crud make this giant machine go kaput? Easy. In electrical situations, it’s “Always Something Simple.”

The best way to avoid the feeling of foolishness that almost always accompanies the outcome of the five-hour diagnosis when you find the speck of crud is to go out to the machine knowing that it’s (always) going to be a tiny speck of crud. How many times out of 100 is the electrical answer something so simple you climb down feeling like an idiot? Here’s a simple solution: If you go out to the machine expecting a huge (mechanical) answer, you’ll be wrong most of the time. But if you go out knowing it will be something simple, when that’s what it turns out to be, you’re a genius.

Manage training and education 

Many people are confounded by the reality that often, electrical skills and abilities don’t grow, even though there might be a reasonably high percentage of electrical problems that come through the door. Why is it that prior experience fails to address current problems?

Because of the misunderstanding of time, as mentioned above. Because the electrical diagnosis is presumed to only take minutes (which causes all the pressure), little time is spent reading and learning about the systems on the machine. More emphasis is placed on the repair, which doesn’t make sense.

This next statement is very important, so you may want to read it twice:

Mechanically, skills and knowledge increase because of the repair experience—but—electrically, skills and knowledge increase only during the diagnosis.

If the diagnostic process is cut short or interrupted—or, worst of all, denied—then the technician will remain forever at a lower-than-useful level of ability. Worse, the supervisor, who should be part of this educational/diagnostic process, remains equally in the dark. The systems become more sophisticated, but the thinking doesn’t.

Too many technicians have told me they can’t get schematics or aren’t allowed to read them, or are expected to just “know how to fix it.” This attitude might have been somewhat reasonable in 1973, but in 2014 library time is money in the bank.

If the supervisor manages what I call homework time (library, manual, schematics, etc.), then they learn at the same pace as the technician. Who cares if it takes five hours to sort the problem out? If the repair is correct and only takes five minutes, then it was worth it—especially since the next time won’t take five hours.

(If you’re someone who has a hard time accepting the five hour/five minute process, then you’re harming your technicians. Their livelihoods depend upon their knowledge and skill, and if you deny them time for research, everyone loses.)

Managing costs and the customer

The predominant underlying concerns in all of this are time and money. How can we improve our electrical times and reduce come-backs (and angry customers or site managers)? Do we push the technicians harder to work faster to finish sooner? Do we toss parts at a problem, when we know statistically that wires are the problem more than 80 percent of the time? Do we BandAid a problem, all the while lying to ourselves that “we’ll fix it right when it comes back in?”

The answer to all of the above questions is “no!”

Speed is not the solution. Sanity is the solution. Take a step back and realize the manufacturer puts all kinds of hints, clues and patterns in their electrical systems, and it’s knowing these that make the difference. Everyone knows there are bolt patterns and alignment keys and color codes and other ways the mechanical world is presented to us. But if you short-circuit the diagnosis in favor of racing to the repair, these clues are overlooked and wasted.

If you want to spend less and/or make more on electrical repairs, the answer is simple: Ignore the “repair” and spend your time on the “diagnosis.” It seems illogical until you think it through. If you push through to the answer before you actually know the question, failure is inevitable.

It is difficult to get the most out of your team when the heat is on and equipment is showing up with systems and features that one often has to question the purpose of. We can blame the engineers for creating some silly stuff, but our misperception of our reality is also partly to blame. Nothing they throw at us works on any new principles. Volts, ohms and amps are all there are, and they can only do certain things.

But that by itself isn’t enough. How the OEM labels wires, routes harnesses, draws schematics and more is all apparent if you look. Knowing these characteristics and methods is how we put electrical and mechanical diagnostics and repair on equal footing. If you can identify a piston by the depth of the ring groove, you can learn the pattern of a wiring system.

Both skills are equally critical, but only the mechanical is intuitive. Electrical diagnostics requires skilled and thoughtful management by someone who will allow the time required to learn the systems involved, so it’s possible to apply the logic of the fault to locate the problem.

Dan Sullivan is a professional electrical diagnostic technician and trainer with 30 years of experience. He’s authored two books on electrical theory and diagnostics and has several patents for test equipment used by multiple OEMs. He owns his own training company. Sullivan can be reached at [email protected].