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Inside Dentistry
October 2023
Volume 19, Issue 10

Foster a Lean Culture at Your Dental Practice

Applying the principles of lean management can benefit you, your employees, and your patients

Clare Grehofsky

In some industries, the principles of lean management and lean manufacturing have been part of the landscape for a long time. But lean principles can also be applied to your dental practice to improve efficiency, safety, quality, profitability, and more.

So, what exactly does it mean to be "lean"? Lean is an approach that uses metrics and problem-solving to reduce defects in production and resolve issues. The lean method is focused primarily on eliminating waste in all of its forms, which includes defects, overproduction, waiting, unutilized talent, transportation, inventory, motion, and extra processing. When fostering a lean culture in the dental practice, this can translate to multiple areas and result in many benefits.

Increasing Employee Engagement

Integral to lean culture is the need for all employees to understand the practice's vision so that they can contribute to that vision. In turn, the leaders need to demonstrate respect for the employees and reward them for their work. This cyclical relationship helps improve employee morale and retention. In addition, it ensures that your entire staff is working to their maximum potential, it increases overall productivity, and it reduces patient and staff risk. In other words, lean culture fosters an engaged workforce.

Considering the current state of recruitment and retention in the dental practice space, being able to create a workplace where your staff love working and encourage their colleagues to join them is ideal. When employees understand the vision, they're happier. They believe in what they're doing and understand their roles in the strategy. Keeping your people happy keeps retention high.

Empowering Problem-Solving

In hierarchical dental practices, the practice leader makes all of the decisions, and the staff follows through on them. But is that truly efficient in today's work environment? Although there are practice decisions that should be made only by dentists and owners, there is value in empowering your staff to make operational decisions to keep your office running and your patients cared for—even when you aren't in the office.

In lean organizations, we think of problems as opportunities and are excited to solve issues so that we never repeat mistakes. If everyone is always thinking about problems and solutions and is focused on eliminating all of your defects and safety issues, you have continuous improvement. You can facilitate this by providing all of the information that your team needs to make decisions. Spend time as a team brainstorming how to reorganize the office so you have fewer issues. Examine your practice's processes and ask the team to weigh in on how they could be further improved. In this way, everyone in the office becomes a problem solver and contributes to continuous improvement.

Improving Patient Care

Getting the entire team involved in problem-solving not only results in better solutions and greater efficiency but also results in higher job satisfaction and better patient care. When your team is empowered to identify problems and develop solutions, they make fewer errors, and the impact on the quality of patient care and patient safety is significant. Your staff delivers high-quality care in shorter visits, which reduces patient waiting time while improving patient outcomes.

When errors are reduced and the time required to treat patients is reduced, safety, quality, and delivery are improved. You get more accomplished in a faster and easier way. It's big. That means better patient satisfaction scores, more positive word-of-mouth promotion, and potentially more revenue.

Reducing Training Time

Think about the amount of training that you have to do each time a new employee joins the team. If you retain more of your staff, you'll spend less time going through the same training over and over. Furthermore, the institutional knowledge acquired by your long-term employees is incredibly valuable to the culture. When you allow staff to work together to solve problems, your newer team members learn from those legacy employees.

Another aspect of waste reduction with regard to training is to promote consistency. The lean approach involves creating standardized processes that all employees follow. This way, there's no time wasted correcting mistakes and unlearning incorrect ways of operating.

Streamlining Office Workflow

One of the biggest advantages of establishing a lean culture and reducing waste pertains to the workflows in your office. There are many opportunities to cut down on wasted time related to office workflows. For example, think about how much time your staff spends walking around the practice preparing for a patient visit, including time spent pulling instrument packs for each procedure, looking for additional instruments, processing instruments, etc. Waste in this area can be solved by bringing consistency to your processes for instrument management.

Instrument Management

Instrument management lends itself to standardization. When you standardize your instrument reprocessing procedures into an instrument management system, you standardize single-piece flow throughout the office and during patient visits. When sterilization cassettes are configured according to procedures, it keeps instruments secure throughout the entire cycle, from patient use to presoaking, cleaning, sterilization, and storage. This also reduces the amount of time spent handling contaminated instruments. Instead of keeping instruments loose for presoaking and cleaning, organizing and storing them in a cassette creates an optimal environment for reprocessing, protects the instruments, and significantly reduces the risk of injuries.

An instrument management system improves efficiency because you always have the right tool that you need in the right place. It enables visual control because when you look at a cassette, and there's an item missing, you can quickly see that it's missing. That improves safety and, ultimately, employee satisfaction. Implementing an instrument management system with well-organized cassettes can benefit a lean culture in many ways, including the following:

Efficiency. Eliminating time-consuming steps to streamline reprocessing can save an hour or more each day.

Safety and compliance. Minimizing how often contaminated instruments are handled improves compliance during transportation and reprocessing while also reducing the risk of costly sharps injuries.

Organization. Better organizing the flow of reprocessing can free up and maximize the use of counter space in sterilization areas. When coupled with the use of organizational tubs for procedural disposables, organization is greatly improved because needs are easily identified for quick patient setups.

Instrument protection. Cassettes protect the integrity of instruments by keeping them in place and spaced out to create an optimal environment for proper reprocessing.

Standardization. Creating a system for managing procedural setups that include all of the instruments that are needed helps with onboarding and standardizing care throughout a single facility and even across multiple locations.

Return on investment. The time saved by an instrument management system can have an immediate impact on practices' bottom lines, allowing them to see more patients and potentially bring in tens of thousands of dollars in new revenue.

Keys to Success

Fostering a lean culture at your dental practice can have an impact on most, if not all, of the aspects of its operation, including improving organization, compliance, efficiency, safety, and outcomes. By streamlining processes and freeing up time, you can increase productivity and the overall patient experience. To truly realize the benefits of implementing lean principles, the key is to bring everybody to the table. Continuing to realize them requires another key—to never be completely satisfied.

About the Author

Clare Grehofsky is the vice president of continuous improvement and advanced technology at STERIS.

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