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Active supervision challenge: Problem-solving

The active supervision skill of problem-solving involves a series of steps that forces you to go beyond the first solution that comes to mind

To effectively solve problems, we need to slow down our initial tendencies to consider the first solutions that come to our minds.

Hello there, Coach Paul here. This month we are reviewing the active supervision skill of problem-solving. For those who have been following the checklist since January, you’ve more than likely realized by now that I inadvertently skipped problem-solving, which I was supposed to cover in April. I apologize for that mistake. We are back on track now.

If you are just discovering this series this month, I invite you to read through the previous articles of the active supervision challenge, which I introduced in January on Police1. I define active supervision as the continual and consistent enforcement of the rules of your organization. In this series, I describe the 10 skills of active supervision. Thus far I have covered performance management, critical thinking, communication, courage and training.

This month I’ll describe the challenge of problem-solving, list the steps for effectively solving problems, describe ways for you to improve your problem-solving skills and wrap up with a few tips and techniques for supervisors working in special circumstances.

The challenge of problem-solving

The biggest challenge associated with problem-solving is that most problems are hidden beneath layers of symptoms. For example, after reviewing the most recent quarter’s activity reports with your boss, you both discover that productivity (numbers of arrests, citations, vehicle stops, pedestrian checks, etc.) is down. It may seem like the obvious solution to this problem is to tell your followers to be more productive out there. But low productivity may be a symptom of a deeper problem, such as malfunctioning equipment, unclear expectations, low morale, or other things. You will need to address those deeper issues before you can turn your attention to low productivity. And in some cases, when you resolve the underlying problems, the symptoms disappear also.

Problem-solving draws on one of the techniques we reviewed in the critical thinking article, namely, slowing down. To effectively solve problems, we need to slow down our initial tendencies to consider the first solutions that come to our minds. To do that, we should follow the six steps listed in the next section.

Steps for solving problems

While the concept of problem-solving seems easy, it is actually a skill that needs much practice to become proficient in. This is because problem-solving has six steps to it. As you read through the following list, most supervisors skip steps 1-3, jump right to steps 4 and 5 and ignore step 6. Let’s look at the effective way to solve problems by examining each of the steps required.

  1. Define the problem. As mentioned, this is the most important and challenging step of the process. In this step, you need to take the time to dig deep enough to distinguish the problem from the symptoms.
  2. Identify the cause(s) of the problem. After you have defined the problem, the next thing you need to do is identify the cause(s) of the problem. You may have also heard of this being referred to as root cause analysis. In this step, you ask a series of whys until you discover the root cause. For example, the problem is one of your followers’ vehicles won’t start. Why (#1) won’t it start? The battery is dead. Why (#2) is the battery dead? The alternator is not working. Why (#3) is the alternator not working? The alternator belt is broken. Why (#4) is the alternator belt broken? It wore out. Why (#5) did the alternator belt wear out? It was not replaced before the end of it’s recommended service schedule. Why (#6) was it not replaced? The department does not have or use a maintenance system. The root cause of the problem comes all the way after your 6th why. This helpful technique was invented by Sakichi Toyoda of the Toyota Motor Company.
  3. Develop multiple solutions to resolve the problem. Once you have identified the cause(s) of the problem, you want to force yourself to come up with multiple ways of solving the problem. Start with the first solution that comes to mind and then keep going. Discipline yourself to come up with at least three solutions to every problem that you are trying to solve. If you run out of ideas, get others involved in the process with you.
  4. Choose a solution. In this step, you will select one of the solutions that you came up with as the solution that you are going to use. External factors, such as time, resources or political considerations will often influence which solution you end up choosing. For example, your ideal solution may be to do something that you neither have the time nor the resources to implement, so you may have to choose a less than ideal solution to the problem.
  5. Implement the solution. Now that you’ve identified your solution, put it into practice. This is where you need to risk being wrong. So many supervisors I work with stall at this step because they are afraid of making mistakes. Draw on the active supervision skill of courage that we discussed previously and decisively implement the solution that you came up with. Trust that you went through a well-thought-out process to choose a good solution, and move forward with it. Remember, doing nothing is a solution also, and it’s often the wrong thing to do.
  6. Evaluate the results. The final step in problem-solving is to evaluate the results of the solution that you chose and implemented. This step is important for two reasons. First, it gives you the opportunity to celebrate the success of solving the problem. Second, it lets you identify areas that you can improve in either your problem-solving process or for future similar problems.

Improving your problem-solving skills

Now that you have been exposed to this model of problem-solving, there are three things you can do to improve your problem-solving skills. The first one is obvious, while the final two are surprising to most people.

  1. Practice. The steps I have described are comprehensive. Not every problem you come across requires this kind of process. But, to become better at solving those complex problems that require this process, practice using this process on simple problems. This will let you get comfortable with the process without the added pressures and stresses that come with complex problems.
  2. Feed your brain. As an active supervisor, you know you are going to be frequently solving problems as part of your daily activities. Prepare for this by making sure that what you eat supports healthy brain functioning, which is critical for problem-solving. I suggest you read this great article from Harvard Medical School that gives you a list of foods that you should make sure are incorporated into your daily eating habits.
  3. Get enough sleep. The average adult needs at least seven hours of sleep to function well. How much sleep do you get on average? If you are like most law enforcement supervisors, it is much less than seven hours. The less sleep a person gets, the more cognitively impaired the person becomes. And cognitively impaired people come up with really bad solutions to their problems. For example, think of those who decide to drive under the influence to get home. Improve your problem-solving ability by increasing the amount of sleep you get.

Bonus content: Tips and techniques

Let’s close this month’s discussion about problem-solving with a few tips and techniques for those supervisors working in those special circumstances that I mentioned in the first article of this series.

Working supervisor (splits your time between supervising and performing line-level duties): For working supervisors, improving your problem-solving skills means taking the time to correctly identify the problems you encounter. Because you are going to be switching back and forth between your different roles, you may feel the pressure to solve problems quickly rather than systematically. Resist this pressure as much as you can, and take the time needed to go through the steps I have covered in this article.

Small agency supervisor (supervises a small group of paid and volunteer followers spread out over a distance): As a small agency supervisor, it’s easy to come up with solutions to problems that positively impact the people nearby or with whom you have regular contact and have unintended consequences for the people that work remotely or whom you don’t see regularly. To avoid this, take the time to get input from all of the people who can potentially be impacted by the solutions that you are considering. This will help improve the quality of your solutions and avoid unwanted surprises.

Minority supervisor (supervises a group of followers who are different than you in regard to race, gender, ethnicity and age): As a minority supervisor, your challenge will be in step 3 of the process. To help you come up with potential solutions outside of your normal experience base, I strongly encourage you to involve your followers in this step with you. This will lead to increased mutual understanding between you and your followers and demonstrate to them that you value their opinions.


Solving problems is something that is central to our profession. Improving your active supervision skill of problem-solving will help you do a better job of coming up with solutions that benefit your community, your department, and the followers you supervise.

If you downloaded or printed the free active supervision checklist that we provided in the first article and have linked here for easy download, you can update it with this month’s information. Add six lines:

  • Define the problem.
  • Identify the cause(s) of the problem.
  • Develop multiple solutions to resolve the problem.
  • Choose a solution.
  • Implement the solution.
  • Evaluate the results.

How are you at using each of those steps? Give yourself a + (plus sign) if you believe that you are good at the skill, a √ (checkmark) if you believe that you are ok at the skill or a – (minus sign) if you believe you need to work on the skill. After you have rated yourself, please take some time to write down your plan for improving your training practices.

If you have any questions about this skill or any of the 10 active supervision skills, submit your questions here. We will gather them up and answer them for you.

I’m Coach Paul, thank you again for taking the time to read this article. Keep your eyes, mind and heart open out there.

Coach Paul Conor, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and management consultant who has been working with law enforcement leaders for more than 20 years. He is a former US Marine infantry officer, who led Marines in combat during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Coach Paul is an award-winning author, California state-certified Team Building Workshop facilitator and former university professor. He is also a reserve lieutenant with the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department.