Problem: I'd like to implement pre-scheduling to help make our workload more consistent; we're overwhelmed one day and slow the next.
Strategy: Pre-scheduling—where the laboratory, rather than the dentist, determines the turnaround time for each case—helps ensure an even workflow, which minimizes the pressure of deadlines and enables a technician to focus on his product quality.
For example, some laboratories use a manual pre-scheduling system. Each technician has a designated block of time and pre-determined number of units he can handle per day. As cases come in, the office manager schedules them into an appointment book according to this set capacity and the laboratory's current workload. Once a technician's slot is full, no more cases are scheduled for him that day. The office manager then calls the dental office with the date on which the case will be delivered. There are also a variety of software packages on the market that can streamline the pre-scheduling process.
Pre-scheduling doesn't eliminate inevitable problems such as cancellations, late cases or remakes that can wreak havoc with your production cycle. So you still may need to juggle your schedule or implement strategies to maintain flexibility. For instance, consider scheduling your days at a slightly lower capacity to accommodate emergencies, allow for breathing room and maintain the level of customer service you want to offer.
Problem: I know documenting our fabrication procedures will help our work be more consistent and raise quality, but the whole process seems daunting.
Strategy: While showing a technique takes less time, it doesn't give your employees a point of reference. Step-by-step procedure manuals are a valuable way of getting all of your technicians on the same page. "You have to have something written down so your technicians have something to fall back on," says Ryan Dutton, Co-Owner of Dutton Dental Concepts in Bolivar, OH.
Each department in Dutton's lab has a fabrication manual that includes detailed instructions for every step of the fabrication process and even illustrations. To create his manuals, Dutton tapped into the people who were most familiar with the ins and outs of the daily production process: his technicians. He asked each department to review their fabrication procedures and develop written standards. The teams used manufacturers' product manuals to guide them and experimented when they disagreed on what should become the standard practice. For instance, the lab was using both pinned and pinless model systems so the staff members did a side-by-side comparison and determined that they preferred the results of the pinned system.
While Dutton admits that writing the manuals was a time-consuming process—it took one year—he says they have eliminated a lot of mistakes and reduced the number of remakes by almost half. Another benefit: because he involved his employees in the process, he feels they have a greater stake in following the documented procedures. "Giving my technicians a voice in establishing our quality controls helped make them more vested in our quality control efforts and feel like valuable, empowered members of the team," he says.
Problem: In this economy, I'm losing clients to price-cutting and offshore laboratories.
Strategy: The bleaker the economic picture, the more people want to do business with companies they trust. But for those dentists who may be tempted by a price-cutting competitor, you need to remind them constantly about why their loyalty should be with you. "My specific strategy in this economy is to bend over backwards. I'm agreeing to short turnarounds, saying 'yes' to the emergency cases, and dropping everything for that last-minute pick-up or custom shade," says Beth Kotewa, Owner of River City Dental Studio, Essexville, MI. "Everything I do is to show the dental offices they can't get that service from offshore or out-of-town labs that may offer a $30 savings."
Some labs are also instituting tiered pricing plans that allow you to retain business you might otherwise lose to a less expensive lab. For instance, rather than lowering prices on your premium restorations, offer them other options—like basic and mid-range restorations that require less labor and use a different quality of material.
Another strategy is to market your specialized expertise that's not likely offered by a cheaper laboratory. For instance, in the implant specialty, complex restorations like overdenture bars have grown in popularity, creating a window of opportunity for some proactive laboratory owners. "We are a lab limited to implant dentistry and our fees reflect the extra labor and knowledge required to produce implant-supported restorations," says David S. Weber, CDT, Owner, Sun Dental Laboratory, Medford, OR. "Competing by offering a higher level of service, care, knowledge and craftsmanship, and charging the dentist for the value of that level, has been a winning strategy for us."
Problem: My lab is bursting at the seams, but I can't afford a larger facility.
Strategy: Get a roommate. A few years ago, Brad White, CDT, Owner of two-person Perdue Dental Laboratory, Sarasota, FL, moved into a new building owned by another lab to share space and common expenses. "I'm paying the same amount of rent as before, but we've gained about 40% in terms of common areas, like the kitchen, dining area and an extra bathroom," says White, who splits the utilities with the other owner, Larry Brown, CDT, Brown Dental Prosthetics. "We also save about 15% by buying office supplies together. For instance, instead of us buying just a few reams of paper, we'll buy a case to share."
Problem: I'm getting ready to retire in a few years. As a solo operation, I feel like my only choice is to just sell off my equipment and shut the doors.
Strategy: If you're willing to plan ahead, that may not be your only option. If there's no family member interested in buying your laboratory, a sound strategy is to merge with another lab that is interested in bringing you and your clients on board. In a case like this, the perceived value of your laboratory is directly proportionate to your willingness to stay to ensure a seamless transition.
If you're not inclined to seek out a merger or work full-time during a transition, another possibility is to find a laboratory in the area that offers a similar quality product and shares your service ethic. Work out a deal in which you earn commission on those customers whose work you can transition to the new laboratory. Then, handle introductions, relay client preferences and help cultivate your clients' relationships with the new laboratory. It's not an extremely lucrative plan, but you can earn extra retirement income while taking care of your customers at the same time.
Problem: I'm thinking of merging with another laboratory owner but worry we won't work well together and the business will suffer.
Strategy: You're right to be cautious; a partnership isn't something you should enter into lightly. Consider these questions to be sure you're a good match:
• Do you have the same goals? Be sure to discuss your priorities and your vision for the business. "The most important thing my partner and I determined was the type of laboratory we wanted to be. We had both owned our own small laboratories and essentially our name was on every product that went out the door," says Allen Weinbrecht, who is entering his 23rd year of partnership with Ken Bailey, a former competitor. The two merged their businesses in 1989 to create Den-Tech Dental Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. "We both wanted to grow, but we also agreed our priority was to be sure our joint venture would continue to produce the quality our clients had come to expect."
• Do you complement each other? Ideally, the two of you will be able to play off each other's strengths and weaknesses; for example, maybe he's introverted and you're extroverted, or he'd like to focus on production while you handle the business end. Determining this requires you to step back and take an honest look at your strengths and weaknesses—as well as those of your potential partner—and think about who would be best suited to handle different parts of the business.
• Are your personalities a match? It's not only the other person's professional qualities you should think about. Consider whether or not your personalities "click" and whether you have similar values and personal priorities.
• Do you have a similar work ethic? If not, this is a common reason partnerships fail: one partner isn't contributing the energy and hours the other person is investing. Resentment is bound to grow if you're at the bench cranking out all of the work while your partner is spending the morning reading the newspaper.
• Are your financial philosophies in sync? Like a marriage, money-related disputes can be a source of tension between business partners. Sharing similar attitudes about finances—such as how you spend money, handle debt or stick to a budget—goes a long way toward minimizing that stress.
Problem: I've been hearing about laboratories implementing Lean Manufacturing; how can it help my lab?
Strategy: After implementing Lean Manufacturing in his lab, Creative Expressions in Winterville, NC, Tim Tyndall, CDT, reduced his turnaround time from approximately 12 days to five or six. "By switching to small batches, organizing the laboratory and getting rid of excess equipment and products, Lean has transformed our lives. It's made us super efficient and improved our quality and bottom line. It's a great stress reducer and great competitive edge, especially against offshore laboratories that can't compete with the shorter turnaround," says Tyndall.
Although Lean Manufacturing is a wide-ranging management philosophy built around five interrelated principles, what it boils down to is taking a comprehensive look at your processes with an eye toward eliminating waste and maximizing value. Processes include everything that is done to a case from pick up to delivery; waste is anything that doesn't add value to the final product and could include wasted time, materials, labor, space, etc.
As with any major management shift, the first step to implementing Lean principles is to get everyone on board; it can't just be a top-down management strategy. One way of involving staff members is to have them participate in flow charting, which entails defining all the steps in each process of the laboratory so you can begin defining and eliminating waste and extraneous work. Flow charting also helps distinguish value-added from non-value added activities, which are defined as waste in the Lean philosophy.
Two other key aspects of Lean: establishing good work flow to create an efficient progression of the cases through departments; and organizing your laboratory so that everything has a designated place and anything out of order is immediately visible.
Problem: I've been saying for a few years now that I was going to spend less time at the bench and more time managing the business but it just hasn't happened. Where do I start?
Strategy: The first step is to delegate just one task and build on it. Carefully look at how you spend your time and, while itemizing your various responsibilities, ask yourself, 'what job could I have someone else do for me that would make my life easier?'
In an ideal world, you already have a technician whom you trust to take on some of those duties. If you need to hire someone, think about exactly what you need. Maybe it's a high-end ceramist who can take on some of the more challenging cases or perhaps the only way to relieve the pressure would be with an experienced, all-around technician.
Delegating is not something that comes easily to most business owners. But the only way to successfully get off the bench is to stop wearing every hat—that of head technician, quality control manager, salesperson, marketer, CFO—and entrust some of those responsibilities to others.