The Value of a Communication Center in a Modern Dental Office

“Hey, I have an idea – tomorrow, let’s get a bunch of autumn fruits and veggies, and hand them out to all of our patients as they are leaving, like Pomegranates, or something.”

It was Tuesday at lunch.  The next day was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and everyone agreed that Lauren, our office manager, had come up with an incredible way to wish our patients a happy Thanksgiving holiday.  It was like we were just given a pep talk, and finished lunch congratulating ourselves for working in such a dynamic, creative, service-oriented practice.

And then Wednesday came.  I strolled in, feeling smug, ready to wow our patients, and didn’t notice any pomegranates at the front desk.  No acorn squashes, no miniature pumpkins, not even any crappy Uncle Ben’s boxed stuffing mix.

My first thought:  blame Lauren.  She really blew it this time.  We were all counting on her, and she forgot.  How un-reliable.  As we all sat down for the morning huddle, I couldn’t restrain my frustration, and immediately put her on the spot.  “Did you get a chance to pick up any pomegranates Lauren?”  I demanded.  Her response, “oh, I thought you were going to get them.”

It was around then that I realized that this was something that occurred quite frequently in my office.  A flash of inspiration would appear in someone’s mind, that person would verbally express it, everyone would agree that “yes, that is a great idea indeed,” and the last part, the follow through, the actual execution of the great idea, was the one minor detail that we would miss.

It took me several years of episodically believing that someone in the office had blown it, forgotten, been unreliable, before realizing that there was something truly wrong with my leadership.  I was running my office, failing to realize that orders and expectations that are made verbally have a strong potential to drift off in the wind.  In contrast, orders and expectations that we expect to consistently be carried out must. be. written.

Many of you have a person in the office who assumes the role of jack of all trades.  In my office, her name is Amber.  She is comfortable with front desk duties, she can take radiographs, set up and tear down rooms, and she is also the person who is responsible for ordering dental supplies.  She is also the person, for whatever reason, whom I bother whenever I have some odd request (hey, I dropped my car off at the tire place earlier, could you call them to see if it is ready).  I can only imagine how Amber feels when she is already heavily encumbered with work responsibilities, and then I walk up, slap the counter, bark an order, and walk off, pleased with myself for being responsible about the worn tread on my tires.

Then, a few hours later, I ask about my car, and she feels flustered and upset.  She has forgotten, and feels terrible about it.  It is a lose/lose.  I feel like she didn’t listen to me, and she feels both shame for forgetting, and also some resentment towards me for burdening her in such a flippant way.

Instead, what if we took all of our ideas, our random responsibilities, and two-minute chores, and put them all in writing.  It doesn’t have to be on any kind of special stationary.  It could be a little note pad, or some sticky notes; and all those little written notes are to be put in a mailbox that each person is expected to check once a day.  If the chore is somewhat urgent (I would really appreciate it if you could call the tire place in the next hour), the note is in a different color, and is placed at the recipient’s workspace, rather than their mailbox.

So, we tried this.  We bought a wooden box with a bunch of sectional dividers and labels, along with a few different colored post-it notes.  I had initially believed that this would result in an increase in the accountability of the team, but the larger, more dramatic result was one that I had not anticipated.  I realized that the greatest number of two-minute chores had previously fallen on my shoulders.  These includes tasks like following up with a lab, filling out some form for taxes, ordering that particular implant doohickey of a specific size and brand, or explaining the need for a procedure to an insurance company.  These were responsibilities that never possessed an organized method of dissemination, and certainly varied in urgency.  Once our mailbox/post it system was up and running, I noticed a significant decrease in my own anxiety while at work because I was able to prioritize my own busywork.

It has now been several years with a strong communication center, and we often wonder how the office ran without one.  If you don’t currently use one, it is an easy and inexpensive thing to implement, with the potential for a significant impact.  Great news for you, your team, and pomegranate farmers everywhere.