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The SOAP Method of Network Troubleshooting: Structured Analysis

The medical profession uses a technique called SOAP, which stands for Subjective, Objective, Analysis, and Plan. Since Jonathan Feldman finds this technique to be extremely helpful in networking, he shamelessly ripped them off and applied it to network troubleshooting. You'll find it to be helpful, too.
This chapter is from the book

The road to wisdom?
Well it's plain
and simple to express:
and err
and err again
but less
and less
and less.

—Piet Hein

I hope you've liked all the note taking involved in the last hour because the method of troubleshooting in this hour involves a great deal more of it.

Treating a complex problem usually involves a lot of note taking because you have to fill in the gaps where your understanding of the problem is incomplete. Up until now, you've treated problems the way you treat a multiple-choice test—with change analysis, divisive reasoning, and matching. Now, we're talking about a fill-in-the-blank test, and it gets a little bit harder; this is the hour in which you have to wade through the subjective, match it up with the objective, analyze your data, and plan on what to do next. In other words, this is the technique you want to refer to for tough problems. You can think of it as writing a journal much in the same way that adolescents do: time-consuming, but ultimately a good way to sort out some serious knots and figure out even the toughest of problems.

Doctor Network

First, here's a little bit about SOAP notes. I first encountered SOAP notes while I was deciding not to be a doctor like my father. Although I had absolutely no interest in sticking needles into people or cutting them open, hanging around my father in his office taught me a lot about troubleshooting and diagnostics in general.

In a sense, medicine is much harder than computing—there are hardly any standards, the designer never released the data sheets (much less the full documentation), and the device you're trying to troubleshoot can sue you if you make a mistake. The medical profession has come up with all sorts of diagnostic methodologies—we as network troubleshooters can learn a great deal from the medical profession.

One of those diagnostic techniques is the SOAP method of note taking. On their patients' charts, some doctors write down (on separate lines) the letters S, O, A, and P, standing for Subjective, Objective, Analysis, and Plan, respectively. Therefore, if I went to see the doctor about my stomach, he might write

S: Patient reports stomach pain; ate hot chicken wings last night; extra work lately.
O: Palpation reveals tenderness in upper right quadrant.
A: Suspect acute gastritis.
P: Treat with antacid x 5 days, bland diet, follow up in 5 days to assess condition.

The subjective is what I say to the doctor, the objective is what the doctor sees, the analysis is what he deduces from his additional questions and reasoning, and the plan is what he will do to try to treat the problem, plus the next step. Doctors are used to not being able to get a black-and-white answer; however, if they have a plan, they are going in the right direction.

Going in the right direction is what the SOAP method is all about. Not every problem you run into as a troubleshooter is going to be solvable within that day or week— particularly problems that are not show-stoppers (emergency room visits). In particular, problems that come and go (intermittent problems) are usually long-term and complex troubleshooting jobs. To be able to start to get a handle on a complex problem, you have to segregate the problem into its component parts—that is, the subjective report and the objective facts. It's particularly important to be able to separate the subjective out—someone might be reporting something that has some bearing on the problem but perhaps is not pointing directly at the problem. Consider someone who's reporting chest pains—is this person reporting a heart attack or a muscle problem? The report of pain in the chest is a subjective feeling—the active investigation that reveals a heart attack or muscle pain is the objective finding. The subjective is useful but can only be borne out by investigation.

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