Academic journal article Human Factors

Cognitive Task Analysis and Innovation of Training: The Case of Structured Troubleshooting

Academic journal article Human Factors

Cognitive Task Analysis and Innovation of Training: The Case of Structured Troubleshooting

Article excerpt

Troubleshooting is often a time-consuming and difficult activity. The question of how the training of novice technicians can be improved was the starting point of the research described in this article. A cognitive task analysis was carried out consisting of two preliminary observational studies on troubleshooting in naturalistic settings, combined with an interpretation of the data obtained in the context of the existing literature. On the basis of this cognitive task analysis, a new method for the training of troubleshooting was developed (structured troubleshooting), which combines a domain-independent strategy for troubleshooting with a context-dependent, multiple-level, functional decomposition of systems. This method has been systematically evaluated for its use in training. The results show that technicians trained in structured troubleshooting solve twice as many malfunctions, in less time, than those trained in the traditional way. Moreover, structured troubleshooting can be taught in less time than can traditional troubleshooting. Finally, technicians learn to troubleshoot in an explicit and uniform way. These advantages of structured troubleshooting ultimately lead to a reduction in training and troubleshooting costs.


Naval ships are equipped with a large number of systems with a combat function varying from sensor systems (radar/sonar) to weapon systems (guns, missile launchers) and command systems (computers). In order to maintain optimal combat readiness, it is essential that the integrity of these systems be maintained at all times. The Royal Netherlands Navy's Weapon Engineering Service is responsible for this task. The weapon engineers on board carry out periodic preventive maintenance, as well as corrective maintenance -- that is, troubleshooting when a malfunction occurs. The corrective maintenance task is often carried out under time pressure, particularly under operational conditions. Often the command team is waiting anxiously for the weapon engineers to find the fault and bring the defective system back to operational status. It is therefore essential that the weapon engineers be well trained and be able to troubleshoot effectively and efficiently.

It is necessary to define what is meant by diagnosis or troubleshooting because the terms are used differently in the literature. Sometimes diagnosis refers only to the process from identification of the symptom to the determination of the fault. In other cases, especially when one speaks about troubleshooting, the entire process of symptom identification, fault determination, and compensatory actions is taken into consideration. In this paper troubleshooting is used in the wider sense: the complete process from the identification of symptoms to the taking of appropriate corrective actions. By using this definition instead of the more restrictive one, a more complete overview is obtained of results regarding troubleshooting skill and types of knowledge used in troubleshooting.

About 10 years ago complaints started to emerge from the operational Dutch fleet concerning the speed and accuracy of weapon engineers. At a macro level, a number of reasons could be given for their apparent suboptimal performance. First, there was, and still is, a high turnover among expert troubleshooters, not only because of the regular three-year tours on particular ships but also because of a relatively large migration of engineers from military to civilian life. Second, there are fewer candidates for the weapon engineering branch who enter the Weapon Engineering School than there are graduates who leave it.

Around 1990, the Royal Netherlands Navy asked TNO Human Factors to look at these complaints and suggest possible solutions to the problems. The approach taken was the following: First, a cognitive task analysis was carried out consisting of a number of preliminary observational studies on troubleshooting in which technicians with varying levels of expertise participated. …

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