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Why 'off the shelf' operations manuals aren't a thing

Feb. 9, 2021
For years, office manager and consultant Laura Nelson has heard front-office professionals' request for a ready-made operations manual. In this article she explains why that will never be (and shouldn't be) an option.

There are a few problems that pop up in most offices on a regular basis. If someone could identify a viable solution to these common problems, they would be very successful.

One such problem is lack of the ability to verify benefits quickly and efficiently, with complete information. There are options out there, but so far, none deliver 100% of what the office needs; therefore, we’re left searching for a better option. The second thing that I have heard requested for years is an operations manual for the dental office. This is something dentists and office managers ask for on a regular basis and no one, in my opinion, has come up with an adequate solution. In this article, I will address the reason that it is a difficult request to fulfill and suggest an alternative for offices to consider. 

What is an operations manual?

First, let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing when we say, “operations manual.” There are people using different terminology out there, such as policy manual, HR manual, employee handbook, etc. The number of different terms can make it confusing. In my mind, there are two “manuals” that an office may need.

The first is an HR/employee manual. This type of manual outlines things such as employment rules, legal terms and considerations, HR policies, and more. These are the rules of working at the business and the manual helps to familiarize employees with the laws associated with those rules. These can and should be written with the help of an HR professional who knows what needs to be addressed and makes sure to follow federal and state guidelines associated with the office. The employee manual needs to be customized and personalized for each office. It also needs to be reviewed and updated on a regular basis to ensure that all laws, policies, and office changes are accurate. This is definitely a manual every business should have, and it can be written once then reviewed and updated as needed. Options do exist for buying a manual like this off the shelf and updating as needed for your office. While the option is out there, it is not the route I would recommend. Hopefully you don’t need to refer to the employee manual often, but when you do, it is best to have one that is legally accurate and clearly understood. Working with a professional makes the most sense.

However, when people are asking for a manual, they are most likely not referring to an HR/employee manual, as described above. The manual that they want and need has to do more with day-to-day operations in the office. The guidelines and rules for how each task, role, job, and office does things to achieve the goals of the office. The operations manual. This manual outlines step-by-step ways things should be done and improves overall operations efficiency and effectiveness. When put together correctly, the operations manual helps everyone on the team do their jobs in the way that the dentist or manager wants them done. As an office manager, I get it. I definitely want that and understand why it is often requested. 

The problem with “off the shelf”

Here is the problem with the idea of buying an operations manual “off the shelf”: Every office is different. Every business does things differently. Each task is done specifically the way that particular owner or manager wants it done to reflect their office’s goals. The way one person in a role does something in one office can be very different from the way a person in the same role completes the same task in another dental office. If you were to buy an “off the shelf” how-to manual, it would either be vague enough for every office consideration to fit (i.e., very generic) or it would be too specific and not in line with what each particular office does, making it wrong or impossible to use. The other problem with operations manuals is that once they are written, things change. The way tasks are done changes, people and flow changes, software changes, etc., and what was written becomes outdated. If the manual is not updated along with the changes, it becomes obsolete. Team members will stop referring to it because it’s no longer accurate. It will become a book that sits on a shelf collecting dust. 

As an office manager, I would love an “off the shelf” operations manual, but I don’t think that will ever be a viable option. Instead, I recommend the next best thing (which is not fun, but doable): Write your operations manual in-house. That is not usually the answer people want to hear from me, but it is reality.

How to eat an elephant

As an author of two books, I understand what a big undertaking this is. I remember deciding I wanted to write a book, and it seemed like such a huge hill to climb. However, like the old phrase goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That is the philosophy I had to adopt to write both of my books and the same is true for writing an operations manual. 

Below are some steps and suggestions that I think can help you make this project doable and successful. 

  1. Don’t try to make this one long document or manual. This should be individual policies that address one thing per document. Each subject, topic, or thing that is being outlined and addressed should have its own document and title. That way when people need to find something, they can search for it. If the document is too large, it gets buried and is not easy to update. I suggest that you create a folder of general subjects that will make sense to future readers and then save each specific policy within the general folder. 
  2. As soon as you write out how to do something, know that it will change. As such, plan a designated place to keep operational policies and “how to’s” so that they can easily be found and updated. I suggest you keep them somewhere on the office network where everyone on the team has access. I also suggest that when documents are updated, they be saved with the new date in the title so everyone knows when the last update took place.
  3. Everyone on the team is helping to eat this elephant. Writing an operations manual needs to be inclusive, because the goal is to write out everything that gets done in the office by each team member. The way to accomplish this is by creating a “how to” document that includes an outline for each employee to follow. I like to have each policy start with “Why this task, policy, or subject is important to know.” That gives the reader the motivation to read it. Then have employees write out the step-by-step process of how to do the task. 
  4. Create a master list of all the things you want to add to the operations manual and have it broken down under each employee. Then set dates to have each employee write a certain number. For example, every employee writes one a week. You set that goal, and after a certain amount of time, you have a manual. 
  5. Last of all, keep an updated copy of the operations manual on the network for everyone to be able to search when they have questions. If they can’t find what they need, then add that topic to the list and have the appropriate person write it and add it. Continually update and add to this as the office changes and grows. This will make the operations manual the go-to place for the team that they can trust will have the latest information on how to run the business the way you want it run.

Understanding that a business is always growing, changing, adapting, and improving helps to explain why the operations manual needs to be a living, breathing document that grows along with the business. By including your team and taking this on in bite-sized chunks, it will be less overwhelming, and you’ll have buy-in from everyone because you involved them in the process. Properly executed, an up-to-date, customized operations manual can unify the office and make everything run more smoothly.

Laura Nelson, BS, MS, FAADOM, is an award-winning international speaker and the founder of Front Office Rocks, a virtual training platform for dental teams that is the leader in dental front office solutions and training. An accomplished recruiting and management coach and renowned keynote speaker, Nelson is the best-selling author of Step Away from the Drill and Hiring Without Hesitation: A How-To for Small Business Success. She has been the recipient of numerous public speaking awards and one of Dental Products Report’s Top 25 Women in Dentistry.