In this economy, working faster, smarter, better is the key to riding out the storm. Here are 6 easy-to-implement tips that can lead to a leaner, meaner, more efficient laboratory operation.
Problem: I feel like my staff is very fragmented, especially between departments. I need some strategies to inspire my technicians to act as a team.
Strategy: Have some fun. Encouraging your employees to have fun together and to develop relationships is an excellent way to foster mutual respect and teamwork. People who enjoy one another usually have a greater loyalty to each other and to the laboratory. "The power of having fun at work should never be underestimated. People simply are more productive and motivated if they are having fun...it's just the way we are wired," says Derik Mocke of the Sustainable Employee Motivation website.
While some laboratory owners have gone all out--treating employees to wine tastings, boat trips, ballpark outings and golf tournaments--you can achieve the same team-building results with low-cost activities, too. Think chili cookoffs' potluck lunches, barbecues, movie nights at the lab, or even "make-your-own sundae" days.
Problem: I have several technicians who have really gone above-and-beyond during the last couple of months. While I can't give significant raises or bonuses in this economy, I want to recognize their accomplishments.
Strategy: It doesn't always need to be an elaborate reward to recognize employees' achievements and show pride in your staff. Many times, it's the recognition itself that will motivate people to keep up the good work and let them know you value their contributions. When employees go the extra mile in their daily routine, consider awarding movie passes or other gift certificates immediately. Or, you can give raffle tickets as a reward and hold a monthly or quarterly drawing for prizes or gift certificates.
If your laboratory is large enough to have department managers, it's important to get them in the habit of demonstrating their appreciation, too. Encourage them to report back to you with employee recognitions each week, and empower them to give out gift certificates on the spot.
Problem: To get our new technicians up to speed, I rely heavily on over-the-shoulder training, but it takes a lot of my time. I need more resources to support their education.
Strategy: Have new employees work with experienced staff members who act as mentors. Not only does this distribute the training effort and take the entire responsibility off you, but it's also good for the technicians who are doing the training. "It shows we value their skills and we have the confidence they can train someone else," says Greg Thayer, Owner of Thayer Dental Laboratory, Mechanicsburg, PA, who has been using the mentor approach for over 20 years. "It also helps current employees accept a new technician more quickly because they're getting a chance to show him the way things are supposed to be done."
Thayer also relies on DVDs from PTC: Simplified Posterior Anatomy and Simplified Anterior Anatomy. "These are especially good for inexperienced trainees to familiarize them with the language used in a dental laboratory and the different anatomical parts of each tooth," says Thayer. "Every one of our technicians, sales people and administrative people--no matter their experience level--complete these two modules when they join the lab."
Other resources: build a library of books and DVDs that you can loan out to trainees, and look into the growing online education opportunities and other courses offered by manufacturers and suppliers.
Problem: I want to promote one of my denture technicians to lead the removable department but I'm not sure who will be most effective in a management role.
Strategy: As most laboratory owners will tell you, managerial skills don't always go hand-in-hand with technical skills so promoting the best technician is not always the answer. Start by defining the leadership skills the manager needs and use them to evaluate each candidate. For example:
• Attitude. You can't train someone to have a better attitude. Consider his work ethic; does he have an innate desire to do his best?
• People/communication skills. Look for the technician who wants to share his knowledge with others--not the one who wants to be the best at the expense of others in the department. Also, can he effectively communicate techniques and ideas? Is he a good listener?
• Stress management skills. Is the technician capable of handling stress or disharmony? You need managers who can stay calm, focused and positive under pressure. Feeling stressed is understandable; it's how he handles the pressure that you need to evaluate.
• Organizational skills. Look for technicians who know how to plan their day's workload, set deadlines for themselves, and seek out ways to increase efficiency. These skills will make it easier for them to juggle the varied responsibilities that come with a management role.
• Ability to prioritize and use good judgment. A manager needs to be able to assess what comes first and what can afford to be put on the back burner without jeopardizing the work--or cash--flow of the lab.
Problem: My laboratory has grown over the last several years and we're at a point where we need to put some defined policies in place. But developing an employee manual sounds overwhelming.
Strategy: Just over half of all dental laboratories have a written manual; it doesn't need to be long, but it can help eliminate the inconsistencies and misunderstandings that result from verbal communication. "A handbook that is read and signed is the best tool for keeping good employees--it holds everyone accountable, employee and employer," says William Grill, Owner, Thompson Suburban Dental Lab in Timonium, MD.
To get started, look at some sample manuals online and consider getting input from managers and key technicians. Involving employees in the process shows them you're interested in developing policies that balance your interests with theirs and may alleviate anxiety about having "formal" policies in place.
Policies you should detail in the manual include time off, such as sick time, holidays and vacation; probation periods; overtime expectations; benefits and insurance; the performance review process; safety practices; and grounds for termination. Some laboratory owners have also started incorporating guidelines regarding the use of the internet, cell phones and MP3 players, as well as food, drink and personal items at the bench.
Be sure to also include these two items that human resource and legal experts say are a must:
• A disclaimer stating the manual is not an employment contract and employment with the lab is "at will" and can be terminated at any time.
• A comprehensive policy that prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination based on race, gender, age, physical ability and religion.
Once you've drafted a manual, have an attorney review it for legal compliance.
Problem: I know that cross-training technicians would afford more flexibility in my small laboratory, but it's hard to fit into the day when we're all focused on production.
Strategy: Investing in cross-training not only gives you flexibility, it also fosters teamwork and helps employees see how their responsibilities interrelate. Consider having a brief meeting every morning to discuss the day's workload and if a technician doesn't have a full day, schedule him for training in another area. Or try arranging training based on typical workflow fluctuations. For instance, if your model and die technicians usually have less work on Tuesday and Wednesday, schedule training sessions on those days.
If you can't consistently schedule time in advance, take advantage of training opportunities as they arise. For example, if you have a slow morning and have been wanting to train your model technician to build porcelain, consider helping him pour models so he is free during the afternoon to work with you at the porcelain bench.
You can also give employees who are eager to advance their skills the option of working an extra hour or two to learn a new technique. In this case, determine in advance how the employee will be compensated. For instance, you might pay him for an extra hour during the training or promise a small increase once he's mastered the skill.