Airing our ideas

June 1, 1996
Nearly all business and practice management consultants say staff meetings are important to the success of the team. Meetings improve communication, generate creative alternatives to problems, increase office harmony, better serve the patients, and can even help improve team spirit. All too often, though, staff meetings become gab fests or gripe sessions - pointless and unproductive.

Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH

Do the staff meetings in your office need a checkup? Take a short quiz to find out:

- Have the words, "productive staff meeting," become an oxymoron?

- Do you spend more time discussing what you did on the weekend than office business?

- Does the dentist or another staff member take over every meeting to discuss their own


- Are decisions made to make changes in office procedure that never seem to happen?

- Are meetings held irregularly or not at all?

Sound familiar? If so, it is time to get back to the basics: Staff Meetings 101.

Nearly all business and practice management consultants say staff meetings are important to the success of the team. Meetings improve communication, generate creative alternatives to problems, increase office harmony, better serve the patients, and can even help improve team spirit. All too often, though, staff meetings become gab fests or gripe sessions - pointless and unproductive.

Richard Chang, president and CEO of Chang Associates, a business consulting firm in Irvine, Calif., writes in his book, "Meetings That Work," that poorly planned meetings lead to unclear strategies, random lists of things to be done, and yet another time-consuming, non-productive meeting. Avoiding the pitfalls while enhancing the advantages is the goal.

What time do you want to meet?

Making the commitment to have staff meetings is the first step, but consistency is clearly the second step. The frequency of meetings can vary greatly from office to office. Many offices hold monthly meetings for a two- to three-hour time period. Linda L. Miles of Miles and Associates recommends a two-hour weekly meeting, which allows time to share practice statistics by department (number of patients seen, number of emergencies, supply costs, etc.), role-playing office situations, organizing the office, and educating each other through monthly table clinic presentations.

"Unless the practice takes the time to get organized and caught up, there will always be the feeling of being on a hamster wheel, running and running but getting nowhere," says Miles. "It`s really important that the staff take time to plan and to train."

A meeting time during the lunch hour may seem logical. But remember that some staff members may resent having to stay if they have the need to escape from the office for awhile. Bringing in food and extending the lunch hour so there is time to eat, stretch, and also have a meeting can be helpful.

Some offices have a shorter staff meeting every day, either in the morning before patients arrive or later in the day. A dentist in Maryland suggests a daily huddle after lunch to discuss the next day`s schedule of events. Other staffs choose late morning when scheduling is difficult. Knocking off an hour early at the end of the day to have a meeting once a week or every other week can also be a good choice.

Management consultants suggest experimenting with different times initially to see what best suits the practice. But once the decision is made, be consistent. Don`t forget to consider the work schedules of any part-time employees if they are expected to attend.

A collaborative effort

Take turns among staff with leading the meeting, facilitating, and note taking. Leaders are responsible for the overall direction of the meeting. They review the ground rules for the meeting and the agenda, summarize issues, and lead the discussion.

The facilitator`s job is more concerned with the participants, keeping the participants moving through the objectives. The facilitator clears up conflicts, solves problems quickly, helps keep the group focused, encourages participation, protects people and their ideas from being attacked, and watches the time to make sure the meeting keeps moving towards a resolution and conclusion. Starting and ending the meeting on time is another responsibility. The facilitator could be visualized as the guardian of the meeting, helping to keep everyone on track.

The note takers or recorders need to listen carefully to the discussion and record what is said without judgment. They need to stick to key words and may need to stop discussion to make sure they understand a point being made. The recorder usually stands before the group and writes on an easel or chalkboard. They also write down who volunteered to do what and by when, and note any follow-up needed at the next meeting in the minutes. They should then post meeting minutes prominently so everyone can see them.

The point of these roles is to ensure involvement. Obviously, smaller staffs may appear silly appointing all of these roles to each other, so a different style of assigning duties may be necessary. But larger staffs benefit from the coordinated effort. With group practices, for example, the leader remains focused on the agenda while the facilitator is the "people person" or employee advocate trying to get everyone to contribute.

Chang writes research confirms that having a leader and a facilitator means shorter, more focused, and more productive meetings. As a result, less follow-up is required during subsequent meetings.

Finally, let`s not forget that participants are also required when having a staff meeting. Their job is to come to the meeting prepared and on time, generate ideas, make decisions, remain open-minded, share thoughts, and take action.

The meeting is over when the objectives have been met, time is up, or more information is required before continuing.

Something to talk about

Always use and stick to an agenda. Dale Tucci, management consultant with Sally McKenzie Management says, "Staff meetings need to be very structured." Such structuring includes concise objectives, how much time is allotted for each topic, a list of who is expected to attend, and what participants need to bring or prepare for prior to the meeting date.

Keep the agenda information or description brief but complete. Under meeting objectives, list any "old business," which are any items that were discussed before and need further discussion or follow-up during the meeting. A brief mention of each item should suffice, such as "review new telephone procedure" or "vacation schedule follow-up."

Next list any new business that will be discussed at the meeting. Most management experts say that two or three new business topics for one meeting is plenty.

Another rule is to start and end the meeting on time. Everyone knows that dental offices rarely run on any set schedule, but make a commitment for the staff meeting to run consistently on time.

If your office is having difficulty coming up with appropriate things to talk about, perhaps a brainstorming session is in order. To focus on practice improvement, start with open-ended questions that can lead to new procedures in the office. For example:

- How could we increase production 20 percent this year?

- What could we do to generate more patient referrals to the practice?

- How could we accommodate 25 more new patients every month?

- What would we need to do for everyone to get a 10 percent pay increase?

- What system needs to be in place to handle more recall patients each week?

- How can we make this office the best one to work in and be a part of?

Hang up large sheets of paper all over the room and write down every suggestion made on a single topic. After everyone is out of new ideas, look at each suggestion one at a time. Is the idea possible or feasible? What needs to be done to make the idea happen? Would it achieve the desired result? Who would carry it out? How would its effectiveness be measured? What time limit is there for it to be done? Of course, it usually won`t be possible to cover everything in one session, so continue the discussion at future meetings.

To focus on continuing education for staff, have everyone make a list of five things they could share with the rest of the staff. It could be information about infection control, lab procedures, X-ray techniques, home care instruction, organizational tips, or what you learned at your last component meeting. Take turns over the next few months sharing your knowledge.

If personal growth is on the agenda, how about inviting in a speaker on relaxation or massage? Try watching self-improvement videos as a group and discussing action plans together. Have everyone make a list of five things they really appreciate about each staff member and share them. Or just take a short walk together and enjoy the sun, then come back and think about keeping that good feeling all day long.

Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH, is a consulting editor for RDH and is a member of the Office of Sterilization and Asepsis Procedures Research Foundation.

How consultants suggest spicing up your staff meeting

Several well-known dental practice management consultants offer some great tips for making staff meetings more productive and fun.

Naomi Rhode, RDH, SmartPractice: "I think staff meetings often become more laborious than celebrative. A staff meeting should celebrate working together!

"Try inviting a patient to do a half hour presentation at a meeting about their latest trip or, if a librarian, what`s new at the library. Or if you have a computer expert for a patient, invite him in to talk about the `Net.` Spruce it up! It`s also a great marketing idea! Offer the patient lunch or a free service for their time. Just think what they will tell their friends!"

Dale Tucci, Sally McKenzie Management: "Give your staff meetings a continuing education component. You should come away from a staff meeting knowing more than when you went in. We rub shoulders all day long but never have a proper forum to share our knowledge with each other. If we educate our people first, then together the staff can educate the public.

"I often tell dentists to build a video and audio library of seminars to share with the staff. It`s hard to implement ideas without everyone on the same train."

Linda L. Miles, Linda L. Miles & Associates: "Have a clear-cut rule: staff meetings are for practice problems, not people problems. Monthly, have each staff member report on their department progress as compared to last year. For example, the dental hygienist would say, `Last month 160 patients were scheduled and 160 came in, compared to 145 this time last year.` She could also include the average dollars per day her chair produced, compared to a year ago. I call this managing by statistics because each person is responsible for their department report: laboratory, supply costs, infection control, scheduling, etc. If we take time to get caught up in the behind the scenes work, we are more organized day to day.

"Fortune magazine recently reported that in the Fortune 500 companies, one-third of their employees` time is spent in staff meetings, employee training, or organizing. In dentistry? I`d say that time is zero. If you`re not organized, you burn out. If you feel caught up, you`re happy! It`s that simple."

Ann Griffin, Practicon: "Some offices give book reports. They read a book or listen to a tape about a motivational or health-oriented topic (not necessarily dental) and give a two- or three-minute presentation to the staff. I like to see the doctor spend the last few minutes of the meeting doing some clinical training. I`ve seen office managers with 20 years of dental office experience who still don`t know the difference between a pulpotomy and a pulpectomy.

"Then I suggest that everyone leave the meeting on an upbeat note. Maybe go around the circle and share a personal triumph for the month. Or maybe look at the person directly across the table and say something that you like about them. I also suggest that one or two times a year the staff take an off-site retreat to work on interpersonal skills and reinvent the practice."

Christene Bernhardt, Jennifer de St. George Con-sultants: "Everyone should have a turn at being the meeting leader except the dentist. When he runs the show, everyone clams up. That`s not to say that he doesn`t have veto power or the right to join in, but when he runs the meeting not everyone will contribute. I also think that everyone should contribute something to the agenda. Hang the agenda in the lab and allow everyone to add to it.

"Another idea is to institute a group memory system. If you are discussing a topic and the discussion veers off track onto something else, the meeting is halted. Look at the new topic and ask how important is this topic compared to what we are supposed to be talking about? If it is more important, write down the topic that was originally started so there is a group memory to go back to it at some point. If the new topic is less important, write down the new topic in the group memory and return the discussion to the original objective. This way topics are not forgotten. Another thing to consider is that although staff meetings are an excellent forum for problem-solving, we also need to occasionally focus on what is going well. We all need a pat on the back."