Why your dental practice needs an operating manual

An employee manual can save your office a lot of problems

Employee Handbook

Look around your practice. Your computer, printer, and X-ray machine, maybe even your adjustable desk chair, all came with operating manuals. But do you have an operating manual for your practice? If not, creating one can save you serious time and money.

Operating (or operations) manuals teach you, your employees, and future employees how to run your practice successfully. When I suggest manuals to my startup and small practice clients, I’m often greeted with skepticism. “I don’t have time to write anything,” they say. “Besides, I already know what I’m supposed to do.”

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Employee Handbook

Even if your practice runs smoothly now, writing an operations manual today can help you identify tomorrow’s challenges. After all, U.S. Census data shows that about 70% of dental offices grow to have between three to 15 employees. Although the failure rate among small dental practices is very low, it is estimated that 35% to 40% of practices are operating well below their production capacity and economic potential. An operations manual won’t solve your specific issues, but it will help you anticipate them much sooner.

An operations framework becomes especially crucial as your company expands. Hiring new employees is an exciting step for the entrepreneurial dentist, but recruiting, training, and managing your team can take up a lot of time, precious time you’d rather spend on clinical production, continuing education, or generating new ideas to grow your practice. An operations manual will make this process faster and more cost effective.

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As the economy improves and job opportunities increase, an operations manual will help you retain your top employees. When people leave a job, it’s not usually due to salary. Rather, they leave because they don’t see a future for the company or don’t feel recognized for their efforts. An operations manual addresses both of these issues. Seeing your operations strategy in black and white will give your employees confidence in your management and stability. Plus, a manual gives clear benchmarks for measuring and rewarding employee performance.

Since your manual will help you train and retain your best employees, you’ll see increased productivity and a reduced margin of error. Avoiding errors matters even more to the small practice than it does to a large organization. After all, you’re paying your employees for every moment they’re with you, whether they’re doing a good, bad, or mediocre job. Even small mistakes can lead to wasted time and lost patients, something fledgling practices can ill afford.

A written operations handbook will dramatically improve your customer satisfaction. Your customers want consistency and reliability. Let your team (and yourself) get creative with new ways to increase or maintain happy patients, but not by changing the process from day to day. Consistency creates trust, and operations manuals ensure consistency.

What should be in your operations manual? While larger organizations can have manuals as thick as the phone book, a good starter document could be less than 30 pages. Think of it as a “how-to” guide to your operations and repeated tasks. Include a business overview, office policies, emergency procedures, and contact lists for employees and vendors. Most importantly, draft a guide for each of your practice systems — marketing, case acceptance, patient management, recruitment, training, administrative, and so on. Each guide should include processes, checklists, and templates or documents necessary to complete tasks.

I know what you might be thinking, “Employees do not want to read long and boring operating manuals.” I agree, and the solution is simple — don’t make your manuals long and boring! Try these tips to make your office manuals useful and concise:

• Include pictures, pictograms, and colors. Think IKEA for your processes. (Don’t forget the nuts and bolts!)
• Require new team members to read only the most important sections.
• Segment training into “bite-size” pieces.
• Incorporate hands-on training and exercises. (For example, have team members work together on practice challenges.)
• Explain why the rules matter. Show how your operations plans support your overall vision for the company.

You don’t have to write your operations manual by yourself. In fact, it’s better not to. Make it a collaborative process with your team. You’ll get their input and give them ownership of your key decisions. A joint effort yields more cohesive results and saves everyone time.

Does a formal operations manual hinder innovation? In my experience, it’s quite the opposite. When you and your team become consumed with everyday tasks, you simply cannot generate new ideas. Manufacturers have long known the value of automation. Automation may sound like a dirty word to a small practice committed to unique, patient oriented practice, but by automating routine tasks, you’ll be free to innovate and create new opportunities for your business, while saving money and improving customer service.

Juliana Marulanda is founder and operations specialist for MarulaNY Consulting.

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