Is a cluttered desk truly the sign of a cluttered mind?

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By Richard Train

Many people have heard the saying that a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind. Of course, there is the opposite saying that it is the sure sign of a genius.

The reason I bring this up is the fact that so many offices we visit have numerous methods of organization and paper management, but how many of them really work well for them? Several of them have great systems in place and may just need some help with fundamentals, if at all. Yet, it is also common for us to walk in and see stacks of papers all over the front desk in an impressive mess. Walking back into the operatories and the doctor’s personal office can often be more intimidating as the piles grow with each step. Even the so-called “paperless” practices use paper at some point and are rarely completely paper-free. With that in mind, how does an office keep the stacks of paper from getting totally out of hand?

There are times when we are asked to consult with a practice for communication issues and find that there is a bigger need to help the team first get organized. They don’t even know which end of the paper process is up, down, or sideways, and have long ago become overwhelmed with the disorganized stacks that surround them. You might be surprised to find just how many dental offices have hidden (and not so hidden) sections of space that look like a scene from the TV show “Hoarders.” How can a doctor and team even begin to communicate when they have no real system for handling their most basic paper functions?

Of course, there is usually strife within these offices when no one knows where anything is and cannot see a task from start to completion. Everyone in the office knows that if they ever had a tax audit, or worse, a malpractice lawsuit, they could be in real trouble. They KNOW it, but fixing the root of the situation is so daunting that they just shut down, put it out of their minds, and go about their day the best they can. They will get to it “tomorrow” – just like that New Year’s resolution workout regimen.

The funny thing about these offices is that they don’t ask us to come in to organize their systems. We usually get the call to put a Band-Aid on a piece of the issue that needs to be fixed, like “communication,” “leadership,” “presentation skills,” or “new-patient telephone skills.” This is often because these practices don’t always see just how bad things have become. They feel it deep down but have a hard time admitting it to themselves.

Incidentally, thanks to the online radio program we do, called “The Whole Tooth,” we have the good fortune to talk with many other dental consultants who specialize in one area or another of the industry. Through this contact, we find that we are not alone in this, and that these problems are fairly common at some level in a vast number of dental practices.

Before we continue with the discussion about the problem of office clutter, it might be important to first ask the question, “How much is too much?”

Just remember this: Your dental practice and everything in it has some level of “curb appeal.” This term from the real estate industry pretty much says that people (i.e., potential new patients and all your existing ones) make value judgments based on what they see and how they feel when they walk up to, or into, your office. If they see a lot of clutter and disorganization, what do they think?

Let’s face it, stacks of papers, disorganized charts and forms, and overflowing drawers and cabinets all contribute to the overall sense of confidence that patients feel in you. Regardless of how organized they may be with their own lives, most people expect their healthcare specialists’ offices to be neat and tidy.

The argument could certainly be made that all surfaces in a practice don’t necessarily have to be antiseptic. These are not your sterilized instruments we are referring to, right? After all, this IS a business and paperwork is an understandable byproduct of the work being done, especially on busy days.

There should be a general understanding between the doctor and front desk staff as to what is acceptable and how to go about achieving it. Ultimately, both have to agree that neither extreme (perfect order nor total chaos) is likely to happen, but a system can be put into place that works for all.

Coming up with a system to organize the clutter in your practice does not need to be difficult, and if you took the approach of setting your mind to think like a brand new patient, it might be interesting how you would look at your office. This is NOT some consultant’s game – it is a real exercise in looking at your practice with a fresh set of eyes.

To do this correctly, we have a Patient Perception Checklist of several physical factors to consider. This checklist includes questions about:

• Location
• Building appearance
• Parking lot
• Waiting room appearance
• Front desk
• Operatories/treatment rooms
• Cleanliness
• Staff
• Conveniences and amenities

(If you are interested in a free copy of the Patient Perception Checklist, please visit

The most important thing to remember when doing your self-evaluation of your physical location is to track your results and compare them with older ones each time you perform this task. The frequency with which you do this depends on several factors. However, we feel that it should be a regular duty and once per year would be a good schedule for starters. If you make any major changes to anything that affects these categories, then a more frequent evaluation schedule might be in order.

Also, you may want to involve more team members than just yourself when doing this, which will provide a more complete set of impressions about your practice. Multiple perceptions can better help you to form a good general view of how your office is seen by your patients and includes your team in the improvement process. According to Dr. Robert Cialdini’s laws of human influence, your team becomes more invested in your practice, takes more pride in it, and your patients can feel that when they walk through your door.

After you have finished your self-evaluation, the most obvious area to begin your de-clutter campaign should be apparent. It is not always what you might think, due to the fact that you have just looked at your practice from a new patient’s perspective rather than your own. Most of us tend to focus on the areas that bother US the most, and don’t think about them from another’s point of view.

This campaign can easily be seen as a battle. As any good warrior can tell you, the simplest method to going into battle takes three fundamental steps:

1. Visualize your goal
2. Plan your strategy
3. Attack!

These battles do not need to happen all at once. Remember the earlier reference to the New Year’s resolution? Losing 20 pounds might be too much to ask for, but if you create a solid plan to lose just three to five pounds in a month…

Write out a schedule for cleaning specific areas. As an example, let’s say that you have completed insurance paperwork that need to be placed in your patient files, but that is just one part of a larger issue in that area. Visualize exactly how you want to accomplish this, plan a set amount of time to do as much as you can on it (say, 30 uninterrupted minutes), and then ATTACK!

Each time you complete an area, check it off a big list for all your team to see (preferably in the staff room, or other nonpatient area). We know that they already see the results of the clean area, but a visual reminder to all of an accomplished task helps to maintain that high level of energy for this common goal. Give little rewards to all involved to keep the motivation level high, and just stick to the plan.

Once your practice has been put back into a general order, your team should then evaluate your existing systems one at a time as a group project. By doing this, several things can happen, including:

• Everyone gets a better understanding of the difficulties in one another’s jobs, and communication can improve between front and back offices.
• You will identify issues with everything from equipment to software, and the appropriate measures can be implemented to fix them.
• The whole team can help devise the best timelines for the solutions and the doctor does not have to always mandate them from “on high.” A gentle nudge along a path that the doctor agrees with might be all that is necessary and the team (invested and intelligent) can provide the brainpower that it takes. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest to be successful.

The benefits of a de-cluttered office are obvious, but think about it this way: Your new patients won’t know the difference but your existing ones will. Everyone wins when the atmosphere in the practice is better due to the increased efficiency and investment of the team. By the way, people like patronizing establishments with that kind of positive energy and tend to feel more comfortable spending money with them. Therefore, your case acceptance should also increase, and watch the team investment when that happens!

So, whether or not you agree that a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, your patients have a definite feeling about it. The solution might be time consuming but simple, and all you need to do is visualize, plan, and ATTACK!

Have fun!

Pennwell web 120 120Richard Train is a graduate of the California State University at Northridge, but his “real” education started from his family’s multigenerational, midsized business, and carried him into senior management positions in other companies. Richard spent decades learning successful business skills from some of the best, and teaching hundreds in several industries.

Richard and his business partner, Hogan Allen, have been working in dentistry for several years and began Get Results Marketing and Business Coaching to share their knowledge. Their goals have always been to help dentists and dental teams learn and grow in any economy, and their weekly free webcast show, “The Whole Tooth,” on was created for that very purpose. They can be reached via their website at, or by phone at (800) 275-2350.

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