The Seven Steps: Where Are We Now?

Re-visiting Chapter 6, “The Seven Improvement Steps” in my 2012 book, “Arrested Development”

Step One: Envision

Police leaders must cast a bold and breathtaking vision to ensure a distinguished future for policing.

“A GOOD VISION statement should be short, bold (even breathtaking), and those hearing it for the first time should be able to clearly remember it the next day. One quickly learns, however, that this is the easiest step. In order for a vision to work, it must be shared with others whom it affects. But having something shared with you is much different than having your vision become theirs… For leaders to have their visions become owned by others takes time and commitment. They must also have passion and persistence. [As chief], I continued to promote my vision whenever I had the opportunity. As chief, I was in the sales business. And selling involves knowing your product and what your customers need. But if you don’t have a desired product, no matter how hard you sell, buyers will be few…”

COMMENT: Looking around, what is the vision statement of your police agency? Does it seep into the “bones” of the organization? Does it dominate recruiting efforts, training, and is deeply embedded in the organization’s culture? If you don’t know where or what the goal is, it’s impossible to move forward, to improve.

Step Two: Select

Police must encourage and select the best and the brightest to serve as police officers.

“IN THE NOT-SO-DISTANT past, nepotism was rampant within police departments. This was a protective response by police to make sure that those who joined them were just like them—reinforcing the subculture and the status quo. Police encouraged their friends and relatives who held the same worldview as they did to join their ranks. The goal today is to continue to staff the ranks of the police with persons who reflect the community served. To a large extent, that has happened in our nation’s bigger cities. But it didn’t happen overnight. In most instances, it didn’t happen through police leadership, but by the changing color and gender of the electorate in our nation’s cities…”

 COMMENT: A police agency that is not diverse in terms of gender and race is not the kind of organization we want policing our towns and cities. Diversity matters and it matters greatly. To put it bluntly, the goal of every police agency should be to achieve gender equality and equal representation regarding racial minorities in the community. Period. I hear a lot today about junior officers leaving police work and the inability of police departments to attract candidates. If that is so, police leaders need to re-visit who you are, your goals, and how you are recruiting and training applicants. Sure, police work can be tough, sometimes you get criticized, but all-in-all, the job should give you more positives than negatives.

Step Three: Listen

Police leaders must intently listen to their officers and members of the community.

“THIS BOOK IS about more than change – it is about transformation. And transformation involves conversion, inside work, not just a change in appearance. The transformation of a police organization first begins inside its members. Much of what I have written here may be new and startling to some. But it shouldn’t be foreign to those who are watching and listening to what is happening in the world today. The non- hierarchical pro-democracy movements around the world are really harbingers of the future. In order for the American police to attain the high level of professional excellence that I believe they are capable of, they will have to undergo this kind of total transformation…”

COMMENT: An effective organization LISTENS. It listens to employees as well as customer-clients. Policing effectively means to have the ability to listen to the voices of persons not usually heard. Good policing is listening to all voices and then helping those in need. Before a problem can be solved, it must be heard. Effective problem-solvers listen — then act. If a police officers or candidates want to be warriors, they should consider serving in the military, not the police.

Step Four: Train and Lead

Police leaders must implement professional training and a collaborative leadership style.

“TO TRAIN IS to lead, and to lead is to train—the two are inextricably linked. Good leaders are good trainers and vice versa. When I embarked on the huge task of improving the Madison department from top to bottom, I started thinking about the valuable role rank-and-file officers could take in being an active part of this transformation. Therefore, I had to be able to attract, hire, and promote to leadership positions the finest people I could find. I knew the kind of people I was looking for and that such high-quality people would only be attracted to serving in an organization that considered them to be of high value and a future leader. To build a quality department, commanding officers—up to and including the chief—must themselves exhibit a willingness to learn, to alter their own behavior which works against change, and begin to lead by example. Police officers must listen to and respond appropriately to their communities, but the most optimal way to learn this is by what they see going on in their own departments. They can only learn to serve their communities if their own leaders first serve them. In this respect, there is much police can learn from the private sector and the academics who work with and define successful leaders in business and industry…”

COMMENT: If history teaches us anything about leadership is that to be effective in doing it takes the mind of a servant. A leader’s number one job is to take care of those he or she is privileged to lead – that’s servant leadership and it is both historical and wise. This is what I learned police leadership should be and do:

My Principles of Quality Leadership

  1. Believe in, foster, and support teamwork.
  2. Be committed to the problem-solving process; use it and let data, not emotions, drive decisions.
  3. Seek employees input before you make key decisions.
  4. Believe that the most effective way to improve the quality of work or service is to ask and listen to employees who are doing the work.
  5. Strive to develop mutual respect and trust among employees; drive out fear.
  6. Have a customer orientation and focus toward employees and citizens.
  7. Manage according to the behavior of 95 percent of employees and not the 5 percent who cause problems. Deal with the 5 percent promptly and fairly.
  8. Improve systems and examine processes before blaming people.
  9. Avoid “top-down,” power-oriented decision-making whenever possible.
  10. Encourage creativity through risk-taking and be tolerant of honest mistakes.
  11. Be a facilitator and coach. Develop an open atmosphere that encourages providing and accepting feedback.
  12. With teamwork, develop with employees agreed-upon goals and a plan to achieve them.

Step Five: Improve Continuously

Police must unceasingly improve the systems in which they work–everything they do.

“IMPROVEMENT OF OUR nation’s police is possible, but it has got to be a constant and not sporadic occurrence. It is going to take some work from each and every one of us. It is possible to engage police officers in a pursuit of excellence, which is essentially what this is. In the long run, this commitment to improving the systems in which police work is good for them and all of us: police will have more support from their community, they will feel nobler about themselves and the work they do, and their workplaces will be more comfortable, gratifying, and engaging. It will be so for citizens, too, because police themselves will be treated with dignity and worth within their own workplaces, and have leaders who respect and listen to them. The method I used was that which Deming proposed – all work is a system; all systems can be improved…”

COMMENT: I learned about work systems and their improvement through the teaching and mentorship of the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming. You can, too, and especially the great body of knowledge we have today about this systems thinking. It, unfortunately, is not the thinking of most police and governmental organizations today. It should be.

Step Six: Evaluate

Police must be able to critically assess, or have assessed, the crucial tasks and functions they are expected to perform.

“MY FIRST EFFORTS to evaluate how we were doing were rudimentary. I knew I had to have frequent and on-going contact with the Madison community I was hired to serve and protect. I should say its communities because no city is just a community by itself; a city today consists of many diverse communities. But for the most part, I became the sounding board for the department. Listening was my first attempt to try and determine how we were doing in realizing our vision and staying on mission. This caused me to always be willing to talk to just about any group in the city or journalist from the media and tell my story—my vision for our police department—and listen to what they had to say in response. Another effort came about as we evolved into a community-oriented organization. I came to understand that I needed a more official and systematic way to find out how we were doing. To find a way beyond just listening at community meetings, receiving comments from elected officials, or reading letters to the editor in our daily newspapers. I needed to find some way to directly ask citizens as to their level of satisfaction with our services…”

COMMENT: Back in my day, the only way to survey was by mail or door-to-door. Today, we have many ways to survey persons impacted by our agencies. I came to learn that I had to ASK persons from those who have had contact with us (yes, even persons we had arrested) in order to know how we were doing. It takes courage to ask, but even more courage to ACT on what was learned. If police in America are going to raise the trust level of the persons they most often have contact with (poor people and those of color) they are going to have to address the problem of mistrust. I have frequently stated that without trust, the effective policing of a free and democratic society is impossible. Police need to ask their “customers” how they are doing.

Step Seven: Sustain

Police leaders must be able to maintain and continue improvements to their organizations.

“AS I MENTIONED, a leader should always be thinking ahead, scanning and listening. And this should be with the intent to sustain the good work and improvements that the organization has accomplished. It turned out that what I was developing almost unknowingly in Madison was something Peter Senge later came to identify in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. When I first read Senge’s excellent definition of the learning organization, it made clear that what we were attempting to do was just that: ‘Organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to learn together.’ An organization that is learning to learning together can sustain itself. It is also an organization that should be practicing the new leadership because that’s what the leadership I have described in this book does. It frees people to learn together. While there are varying definitions of a learning organization, there remains a core principle in all of them. They are organizations that facilitate the growth of all their members and continuously work to transform themselves…’ My experience taught me the benefits of such an organization. This kind of organization is able to learn from its successes as well as its mistakes. It can innovate, be competitive, respond to external pressures, link and adjust its resources to meet customer needs, continue the pace of change, and bolster its image in the community; that is, to sustain itself…”

COMMENT: Is your agency such an organization – one that practices continuous learning? Midway through my police career I found myself quite content as a leader. It seemed so easy. My ship could virtually run itself. Was that the mark of a good leader? No. What I was doing was organizational maintenance. And that’s fairly easy. When we started on the path of continuously improving, my job changed dramatically and for the better. I was now an active, energized leader, not head of organizational maintenance. There was a strong message here and thankfully, I learned it. You can, too.


Excerpts from Chapter 6: “The Seven Improvement Steps” in Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police, David C. Couper, 2012.

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