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A five-stage process from fault to fix

By autotech-nath on March 13, 2022

Following on from his presentation at autotechnician’s Big Weekend in November, Gareth Davies provides a recap and expands on the benefits of having a process when it comes to assessing vehicle faults in the workshop.

Data is defined as individual facts, statistics, or items of information (often numeric). In a more technical sense, it is a set of values of qualitative or quantitative variables about one or more objects. The statement I put forward to the audience at the Big Weekend event was ‘We are analysts more than technicians.’ My question to you is, do you agree? If you don’t, perhaps you will by the end of this article…

In days of old I think we can all agree our eagerness to be doing (as technicians by very nature we are doers) has dictated the path and flow of our regime when approaching a troublesome vehicle. What I mean by that, is that a tool of choice is selected from the point at where a vehicle is brought into the workshop, in preparation for the doing part (figuring out the problem). This event for a long time may well have been totally autonomous and dictated by tool availability, it may have been relevant to the reported symptom, or it may have been that we always ‘do diagnosis’ this way. The phrase ‘diagnosis’ by the way is not limited to warning lights on the dashboard or a rough running engine… If you stop and think about it, that’s the preconditioned autonomy happening again, isn’t it?

Diagnosis is undertaken on anything that does not work correctly, does not work as it did (usually after you serviced it but 8 months later!) it could be a noise, a symptom. So, diagnosis, in effect, isn’t the culture that’s been bred of ‘plugging in’ and to be doing. Diagnosis is taking steps back to how it was done way before OBD and taking a note or two. We are all aware of the variety and proposals out there from garages for diagnosis, or as I prefer ‘Fault Assessment.’ For example, you can get diagnosis for free in some garages, others may charge a set fee for a ’plug in’ or it may be by the hour, it may be a different hourly rate depending on whether the special computer has to come out! Should you be charging less or more than the garage it came from are because they advocated your services due to having a ‘better computer’? However you decide as technicians or business owners to market this service, explain its functions and decide on time provision is entirely down to what works for you and your business. But and there is a significant but, when you have understood your offering/pitch, then you have a start point for your diagnostic process. This is the reason the diagnostic process really begins before you’ve even met the customer.

At this point, some of you may be saying ‘I’m a one- man band/a small garage, process sounds long-winded and difficult or needless to implement.’ It need not be difficult… Most of you, whether you identify it or not, will have a process to some extent, and now would be a good time to stress test or review it.

Your offering: This should be clear and concise, staged, and progressive, and represent value for money for the customer and the business. There is no such thing as a free lunch in life so how accurate and detailed will the free diagnosis be? Well, short lived in business terms if it covers those bases and does not make it up in the repair structure. Some people offer this service, we used to in fact. Why would you though? A business requires reinvestment for training, tooling, and development. Fault assessment should always be charged for, regardless of repair structure and outcome.

‘Plug ins’: How much value is here for the business and the customer? It may be a decent return for one party but not the other. Consider this method redundant. It will lead to inaccurate hypothesis on what’s wrong and will leave the customer wanting. Reading faults and issuing a printout in my opinion no longer has a value. Its robotic and yields little to no result. Identify your customer at the enquiry stage as to whether they seek conclusions. This may be less of a challenge for regular customers or have previously been through the process, but for new custom opportunities, this is a great way to set the stall out early for what your process offers, and what they may gain for the appropriate fee.

Appropriate fee: This is variable and dependent on geography, tests to be carried out, approach, previous success rate repute, previous investigation/interference by others etc. This may sound slightly uncouth, but we need to appreciate the talent value – the potential effort or challenge within the presented task and the value we may be offering. An example would be as crude as analysing my business’s fault assessment cost vs a local franchised dealer. In raw outlay, they are cheaper (GASP!) Does it mean we don’t carry out many fault assessments? Of course not. We have a shorter lead time, we do more than a franchise does for the fee, we have available loan cars, we use methods not used within a dealer (simulation/substitution) and we have better customer service. Whatever the reason, price has to some customers, but not all, become irrelevant. It doesn’t mean they are being overcharged or we’re taking the mick, there is just an underlying appreciation for what we do, how we do it, and so on. All of this stems from the diagnostic process.

OK so back to the nitty gritty. Establish where your process is or isn’t at. This is back of fag packet stuff and nothing more now. Set out bullet points that cover all that is to be achieved and what you may need to achieve this, such as resources, tooling, time provision and charges.

Step 1 Customer interrogation

This is vital. In order for you to solve the problem accurately, timely, and as ‘eyes wide open’ as possible, you need to spend some time with the customer beyond taking the keys from them at the drop-off point. This may be time we may not think we have or need, but I assure you it is time spent well here. Depending on the setup of the garage, it maybe you and only you, or it may be cascaded via front of house, workshop control etc. By creating a diagnostic questionnaire, you can fact find without too much effort. Populate a short form that includes all the questions you want answers to as a technician assessing a fault. Topic areas could include some/all or anything you feel relevant similar to the document Figure 1.

You can be savvy with your time and send these electronically by email before the scheduled appointment, so that data acquisition is already taking place before the job is in the workshop. It gives freedom for the customer to play their part in telling you as much as they can (urging them of the reasons why this will help everyone) and even if handwritten but scanned in by them or at point of drop off, it is great reference material. It is preferable to a quick chat at drop off when you can forget what they said, or it becomes diluted when passed from front of house to the workshop. If you have these clues before seeing the vehicle, you can already get the cogs turning in your analytic mind as to a ‘sportsman’s’ hypothesis on the area of concern. You can think on it if nothing more, but it can be really helpful.

Finally, this form is also rather useful for reminding of some basic, but often forgotten, customer prerequisites such as previous history (i.e., already had parts replaced), servicing state, minimum fuel level requirements for testing etc. How many of you bring cars in for testing and find the fuel light on or five miles to empty?

Figure 1

Step 2 Initial inspection, 10-15 minutes

We now take the opportunity to get the vehicle in, get a battery charger on and carry out an initial system scan of the vehicle. This can vary, some tools have quick boot and scan time, others, such as manufacturer tools, can take some time. Use the time wisely. Let the machine do its thing while you do yours. Have a quick walk around the car, check tyre condition, engine oil level, do a battery test (if easily accessible), visual engine check (obvious split hoses, serious oil leaks etc.) This is a great habit to get into, it uses the time to good effect and also helps protect you within your tasks. For example, you wouldn’t want to potentially carry out a road test with two bald tyres and engine oil level below minimum, for your own sake, other road users, and, most importantly, you may well compromise yourself or the business financially. Currently you have no measure of the health and integrity of the candidate. It may also include, depending on the nature of the fault, a pretesting road test, as for example the issue may solely be under driving conditions.

Once your systems scan is produced save it, print it (I recommend two copies – one for the customer’s record and one to work through, oil fingerprints and all). If you like
to do your bit for the environment, PDF it and log it in a folder of cases. You could then export all your findings and digital evidence onto a USB stick or create a cloud link for the customer. At this stage, I would advise to leave the vehicle as it is, unless something has turned up during the walkaround and quick visual, and pull up a pew with a brew for the next step…

Step 3 Information research, 10 – 25 minutes

This is often an overlooked and under rated step of the process. It’s back to the doer nature again. We can’t be sat around staring at a computer screen with a cup of tea in hand, can we? Why not? I consider this as one of the most vital steps in identifying: The area of concern; clusters or groups of faults; the number of faults present; and the relevance of the area of concern to the reported symptom. Does the reported symptom match the presented symptom? A tip at this stage is get some highlighters and highlight clusters that belong together. i.e., a lambda fault and fuel trim fault at this stage may be linked, but it will have no obvious relevance to a fuel

flap actuator circuit fault. Your testing will prove if even the most obscure faults belong to the same family of fault source. If they don’t, then you are laying the foundations for a thorough analysis of the vehicle’s issues and ensuring the analysis and repairs are profitable for the efforts that need to be applied. How many times did you fix the warning on the dash but were questioned why you didn’t fix the inoperative cigarette lighter as part of the repair?

Now, depending on the nature of symptoms and type of fault, engine running condition, warning lights, body electrical, this is where the path of this step takes many forms, with too many eventualities to cover. In terms of process, however, it’s the point at where you may research the fault code definition. This may involve the examination of current flow diagrams or researching technical service bulletins or known fixes. It may even be that the nature of the fault, its symptoms, and the known fix, hypothetically require services or intervention that you don’t currently offer or are capable of. Whilst not ideal, you can conclude this job, providing great insight to the customer with your findings. You cannot offer them a solution but can confirm the solution is X and will require Y to affect it. The value you sell even off the back of a no-fix solution, saves time, effort and unnecessary expense for you and the customer and, in addition, adds credibility to your repute for the transparency. Let’s say, for example, ‘the issue is currently solved under a warranty/goodwill measure from the manufacturer’.

If we have not fallen into the above scenario, and we now know where we are going to test, what we are going to test and what we are expecting to see as a result, then you can move on within your process. If you can’t confidently answer the above, now might be the time to do some on the job or just in time learning. This is equally as important to the end outcome for all parties. The reason being, if you are about to carry out some dismantling, or mild intrusion for testing purposes, you want to know how to be able to test the circuit or component, and what to expect from a bad or good result. Without this, you can fall into a rabbit hole, often born from (you guessed it) our ‘doing’ nature. Over the years, and hard learnings of wasted and improperly charged jobs, I have found 20 minutes researching for 10 minutes accurate testing, is worth much more in efficient work and results than 10 minutes ill-thought looking that becomes 4 hours, still with no result.

Step 4 On-vehicle testing, 15-30 minutes

You should now have a much clearer picture of the area of concern, the testing you are going to conduct, the component locations, the circuit layout, the testing conditions for the circumstance (freeze frame data states fault occurs at 3,000rpm and coolant temp of 84 oC, don’t carry out the testing at idle from cold), circuit layouts etc. This is the step that takes the wide spectrum and begins to narrow it right down. It must do this, even if for multiple fault symptoms or areas of concern, otherwise you will not be efficient in accurate testing that creates measurable validated results.

An example that springs to mind would be a Mk5 Golf indicator problem we troubleshooted a few years ago. It had been to a few garages and some testing had been carried out but to no root cause conclusion on the fault source.

The DTC stored in the BCM was open circuit/malfunction of NSF indicator bulb. The bulb was a simple 21W filament bulb, and we confirmed it did not light up when the indicator stalk or hazards were on, and the increased flashes per minute were present when actuated. In addition, a bulb telltale would reset with ignition cycle until the light was actuated again. The only check carried out at this stage was the bulb integrity, which was confirmed as new, intact, and fitted correctly (Step 2 stage).

The wiring diagram was checked, and test points were created. The first was at the bulb connection, back probing with a test light using a back pinning probe at the headlight, flipping to test positive and ground connection. No output was confirmed. The second test point was the source of the signal/ instruction, the BCM. Relatively accessible, the same test was carried out at the BCM and confirmed no instruction output. A wire test was carried out by isolating the wire from the plug at the BCM, and a load was driven down it. This crudely confirmed via a power probe (know when and where to use) I could make the indicator light up. We confirmed the fault as the BCM itself. Now we all have that feeling inside of, ‘wow a new BCM for one light circuit failure, it can’t be right?’ It was, and between the analysis, evidence and test results, the repair was authorised. The new part was fitted, and the fix was confirmed. The degree of nervous emotion when concluding a required repair becomes less when you can be sure of your testing, approach, and methods. The wobblier the methods, tests and results are, the less likelihood there is of a positive fix outcome.

At your testing stage, you may wish to validate your ‘finds’ by means of substitution or simulation. This could take the form of an overlay in the case of an electrical fault. Always remember to take the simplest approach to prove the theory. i.e., a broken wire has been highlighted somewhere between the bulkhead and the NSR quarter panel, buried in trims, covers and insulation that will take time to find. If the belief is the wire is compromised, you could run a back pinning probe and lead from point A to point B. This will not be pretty, or lasting, but it only has to be the proof of a fix. The labour that is required to create the repair will not necessarily be included as part of the assessment. A tip here is know your fundamentals. Be mindful of CAN Bus and how it works, be mindful of the size/gauge of a wire and its reason for being that size. I remember a vehicle from a very long time ago that had a wiring fault on a lighting circuit but kept blowing the fuse. The operator saw fit due to the inconvenience to u-bend a 4-inch nail to replace the fuse until it was fixed. Unfortunately, the fix in the end required a new dashboard, fuse box and wiring harness as a result!

Depending on the outcomes of your testing, it is another good point to begin thinking of the repair structure, and how suitable your offering is to the repair. For example, if a component is to be replaced (using the Mk5 Golf example above) does it require coding or a handshake to commission and complete the repair to a ‘fully fixed state’. If it does, between your offering or contacts in the trade, can you deliver a ‘fixed’ solution under your umbrella and be mindful of costs, so you are appropriately charging for these efforts and outsourcing?

Step 5 Repair structure

This stage of the process is important as the end of the assessment approaches, but the beginning of the repairs may commence. I am sure many of you operate only as diagnosticians, in which case, only proving rather than fixing is within your offerings. For those of you keen to secure and facilitate the fixing part (we’re doers so we’ve been gagging for this bit, right!) then you should begin by summarizing in reasonable detail, the process so far.

Your write up will need to consist of more than a single labour line detailing ‘Diag – bulb fault.’ The reason being is you’ve done so much more than that. This is not an exercise to over inflate charges, but it is a great opportunity to create proper detailed records for yourself and the team (they may have to look at another fault on this vehicle in the future) and it will also instill confidence in a great attention to the customers faults, how you have accurately pinpointed this issue, and know that following the outcomes of your assessment tests and methods they can have a high confidence in the proposed repair.

Now we all know that a small amount of solder, a piece of heat shrink and replacement of a 4-inch section of green crusty wiring isn’t going to pay the mortgage. Any repair should be charged for appropriately, but if you have been doing free diagnostics up until this point, the bills aren’t going to be covered. Most customers are rational and understanding. If the structure of what you are offering weighs up as value for money, charging for diagnostics should never be a question you have to ask yourself. Likewise, make sure that the repair is charged for accordingly. It may be quite labour intensive, it may be a collection of parts or processes, make sure the labour times and efforts required are researched specifically to vehicle application, and that any associated parts etc. are all accounted for as part of the estimate.

Project findings, and the evidence of the findings, in a clear and concise narrative. You don’t need to be the next Tom Clancy, or Danielle Steele, we’re technicians, but there has to be meat on the bone to summarise all that’s taken place.

Before submitting anything to the customer, just take another moment to analyse everything that’s been done. Have you covered the brief, are you making the customer aware of things you’ve found or discovered that may be incidental or unrelated to what they have presented the vehicle for? Are you as the technician satisfied with all you have done? Furthermore, don’t be afraid to engage with customers. We’re all mindful of time, it’s the only commodity we or the businesses we work within sell, but have you kept track of how much time you may have spent at each stage here?

There are variables sure, and I can’t cover every eventuality, but the above is a guide, food for thought even. Our way may not be your way, you may feel there is too much, you
may feel there isn’t enough. And the detail here is it needs to be about you, the business, and the customer. The process evolves, sometimes in minor detail and sometimes in a major overhaul. It’s been constructed as a team, over a long period of time. Some material and ideas are mine; some have been picked up from spending time with great technicians and great businesses alike, and the bits we needed have been taken out and fitted to our process. The process can be handwritten and laminated, it could be a note on an app on your phone, its not designed to be complicated, but it should be easily referenced, drawn on often, and improved as needed.

What I hope has been demonstrated above, is that you can sell your value and skills, you can offer great customer service, and you can also troubleshoot some faults,
all whilst earning a fair return for the efforts applied. I challenge you to evaluate your current process for assessing faults, and not by adding anything I’ve given you above, but can anything be improved from your or your team’s point of view? Can you add value, can you sell the value – ultimately, continued improvement is always better for everyone?



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