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7 Problems Solving Strategies

So you have a computer problem?  My role is to show you the road to your salvation. Here are seven steps to solve any problem.

Computer Troubleshooting

Problem Solving Strategies

  1. Believe in yourself - get into troubleshooting 'state'

  2. Collect information - ask what has changed on your computer

  3. Narrow the search - hardware or software

  4. Assemble your software tools - Event Viewer and TechNet

  5. Develop a theory - think of the most likely cause of the problem

  6. Be methodical - one step at a time

  7. Phone a friend! - call in favours

1) Believe in yourself - Get into 'State'

Firstly, and most importantly, believe that you can solve this problem!  Guy says, 'You will beat this computer problem'.  So take 5 seconds to get into 'state'.  Visualise another problem you solved, remember the elation you felt when beat it.

Okay, now you want practical advice.  Try these methods and solve your computer's software problem.

2 Collect information

A well defined problem really is half the solution.  Something magical happens when you write down precisely what is wrong.  Just collecting the symptoms triggers your brain to start searching for causes.  As a bonus, if you write down the problem it will prepare you for other strategies. (and to email me if you are really stuck.)

Problem Solving Tip Draw a diagram, sketch out the problem.

Ask: 'What has changed recently?'

Ask: 'Has anyone added a new program recently?  Has any hardware changed?'  If so reverse engines, revert to how it was and check if that cures the problem.  Pattern recognition is a vital troubleshooting skill.  Look for patterns, spot what is out of the ordinary, such as file date that is newer than all the rest, or a spelling misNake in a script.

Two supplementary questions: Did it ever work?  Can I see it working on a nearby machine?

Can you reproduce the problem?

Can you make the fault reoccur?  If so, write down any error messages and type them into Google or TechNet.  Don't give up if at first the search results are disappointing, experiment with different combinations of keywords.  Look for more phrases or ID numbers from the event viewer or message box. 

Problem Solving Tip Add Microsoft or Windows to your search keywords.

1st Search: Logon Scripts   2nd Search:  Windows Logon Scripts
1st Search: Group Policies   2nd Search:  Microsoft Group Policies

Software

Which programs are affected?  For example, OWA is not working, chick if IIS and the website are running?  PowerPoint's spell checker does not work, is the Word Spell checker operational?

Which programs still work?  No external email is getting through, can you send emails to another internal user at your site?

Log on as administrator.  If a user complains they cannot add a new printer, that could be by design.  If the menu is greyed out, then perhaps you need to logon as a local administrator.

Hardware

Which components are dead, which components still work?  If the mouse is dead, try the keyboard.

Check lights e.g. Modem, disk, NIC. Check cables e.g. network, power supply. 

Call for the Device Manger (System Icon) investigate yellow question marks or red dots with crosses.

How many computers are affected?  Lots of machines cannot access the internet, it could be a router.  Only one computer, it could be a loose NIC or the cable is out.

3) Narrow the search area

Your first branch in the decision tree should be: 'Is this problem software or is it hardware?' Investigate the scope of the problem; if it's software, which programs are affected and which still work. Try to uninstall or re-install the suspected program.

If you suspect a hardware fault be sure that you are dealing with the underlying cause not a symptom. Try swapping the suspect part for a similar component on a working machine. For example, if the keyboard is dead, swap it with another machine. From the result you now know if it's the keyboard itself or the computer system unit. I applied this to my old Lenovo desktop and is now working very smoothly.

4) Assemble your software tools

  • Event Viewer
  • Google and TechNet
  • Windows Server 2003 Help - especially Troubleshooters
  • Task Manager
  • Network Monitor

Event Viewer

Intermittent problems are the toughest to track down.  With Windows Server 2003 the event viewer is your best friend; make it the first place to look for clues.  Set a filter to show just errors (red dots). Remember to include the application log in your search for clues. 

Where do you find the Event Viewer?  Start, Programs, Administrative Tools

TipHold down Alt (Key) and Print Screen (Key) then paste into WordPad then you can e-mail the error to any one who you think can help. 

What to do with information?  Trust TechNet to make sense of the event messages.  

TechNet

TechNet is like an encyclopaedia for Microsoft, believe that someone has researched your problem before.  Copy and paste event viewer messages into TechNet's search command; the secret is to keep trying different word combinations.  

Tip Use NEAR to narrow down the search. Suppose you get this error message:  Modem Error 600. Go to TechNet search for Modem NEAR 600.  This gets any articles with 600 and Modem up to eight words apart - result 6 articles. If you search for Modem error 600 this gets 200 articles with modem OR Error OR 600.

Where do you find TechNet?  Best to subscribe annually.  For a quick reference, go to www.microsoft.com/technet and enter your queries online.

Windows Server 2003 Help

If you are in the habit of dismissing Windows built-in help, then think again.  I urge you to give help another chance. 

Guy's Ratings of Help for Problem solving: 

  • Google 10/10
  • TechNet 8/10
  • Windows 2003 Help - 6/10
  • Windows 2000 Help - 5/10
  • XP Help - 5/10
  • Windows NT - 2/10 (Purely to give perspective on my ratings.)

Windows Server 2003 help has 21+ troubleshooters.  Built-in help and the troubleshooters help in situations where you may have a blind spot or have overlooked something obvious.  I once could not make a RAS connection work, the Troubleshooter suggested that silly me had tried to push the modem lead into the NIC port.

Task Manager

This tool has three tabs.  You may have already used the Application Tab to End Tasks that are not responding.  Take the time to become familiar with the other tabs especially the Process tab.  For example, you see multiple instances of programs that you thought were shut down; try end task on the executables and so save a reboot.

Where do you find Task manger?  CTRL + ALT + DELETE (2nd Button on bottom Row)

Network Monitor

This is an advanced tool that I use for troubleshooting network connection problems.  The monitor captures all packets sent and received by the server.  The benefit of network monitor is that you can see which connections the server it trying to make.  For example, it helps to spot when ever a server is trying to connect to a non-existent machine.  

All things good to know are difficult to learn.

I say again, network monitor is a complex tool.  However, if you persevere it will teach about the 4 network layers; this knowledge will help you to isolate a problem at the Network, Transport or Application layer of the protocol stack.

Where do you get Network Monitor?  Control Panel, Add Remove Windows Components, Management Networking Tools.

5) Develop a Theory

What could have gone wrong?  Make a list of all possible causes, then ask your self, 'which is most likely cause'.  For example, the machine is running terribly slowly, which is more likely, someone crawled in through a window and stole the RAM chip, or a  virus / maleware program has taken over your machine?

Believe that someone somewhere has experienced your problem before, also have faith they have posted a solution in a blog or forum.  So search for variations of your problem in Google, if you have an error number then that will improve your changes of finding a good reference.

You may need to give your brain a chance to find the solution.  When I have the courage to admit to other people that my best ideas come to me in the bath, when mowing the lawn or daydreaming, I am surprised that people don't laugh, but own up to similar 'eureka' moments when they were relaxing rather than focussing on the problem.

Software: Is it an operating system component or is it program x?  Could it be that new program I added?  What about those files I deleted?

Hardware: If a component is not working is it a symptom of something else, or is it the root of the problem?  Is there a log I can check?  or is there a specialist monitoring tool, for instance would milli-ammeter be useful?

6) Be methodical when you test your theories.

I have had the privilege of watching gifted troubleshooters in action. Their golden rule is test one factor at a time.  I was surprised how they rely on discipline even more than flair. They really do write down all the changes they make.  Learn from the expert, list the causes, list possible solutions, draw diagrams.  Therefore, develop theories for the underlying cause but change only one item at a time. 

Don't be afraid to print out instructions and ring keywords, it really is 40% easier to read on paper than online, moreover, just sitting at another desk may jog the brain to come up with a new in sight.

Beware, amateurs often make matters worse by introducing new problems.  My friend 'Mad' Mick tried to cure a noisy fan by spraying it with oil, the result was a mother covered with a fine layer of oil - that machine never worked again.

7) Phone a Friend! 

I am serious - ask for help.  Think, 'Who is most likely to have seen this problem before?'

  • Phone an expert, call in favours
  • e-mail anyone who can help
  • Post a message in a forum e.g. Tek-tips.com
  • Contact the manufactures web site

Even if you chicken out calling someone, at least ask 'how would my friend xyz approach this problem?'

I have noticed that people approach a problem in two distinct ways.  I'll call the first method the 'techie' approach and the second the Henry Ford method.  At this point I assume that you have been using the 'techie' approach and sadly it has not worked for your problem; if so, then give the Henry Ford method a chance. 

Legend has it Henry Ford knew little about car manufacturing but had a row of buttons, blue for an engine expert, red for electrical etc.  So, now is the time to press your buttons.  Contact the most likely people, explain the problem and appeal to their problem solving skills.  

Make that phone call.  Send that e-mail.

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