Thanks to the implementation of W. E. Deming's manufacturing principles, the staff at Unique Dental Group has successfully switched to a four-day workweek and is enjoying more leisure time.
When master ceramist and creative artist J'neil Oxley founded Unique Dental Group in 2006 with five employees, she wanted to create a different type of lab, one where people are free to share ideas and see those ideas take off. "When you really listen to and are aware of employees, it becomes their company and the whole environment changes in the laboratory," says Oxley, whose Cottonwood Heights, Utah laboratory has grown to 31 employees and last year grossed $2.4 million.
Concerned about work-life balance, employee overtime and rising fuel costs, Oxley and CEO Patricia Godwin wanted to switch to a four-day, 10-hour-per-day workweek last June. They challenged their staff to make it happen by implementing W. E. Deming's manufacturing concepts--a production management philosophy that helps streamline workflow and reduce costs.
At first there was some skepticism among staff members; already working five 10- to 12-hour days, they wondered how they could accomplish the same amount of work with one less day. But that's exactly the goal of lean manufacturing: to eliminate areas of waste and delays in production and thus operate more efficiently.
Highly motivated by the potential reward, the laboratory staff formed teams to take a comprehensive look at laboratory processes and determine how to make improvements. The most notable change to emerge was the work team concept. Previously, each technician in a department had his assigned cases and worked completely independently. Now they work in teams and there's a much greater emphasis on cross-training. When a team member finishes early on a given day he seizes the opportunity to train in another area.
Each team has a leader who helps coordinate the workflow and is accountable for the status of every case. Every morning, the teams have a "huddle" during which they discuss the day's cases and any anticipated problems. "The team provides flexibility to cover work when one member is running behind or if emergencies arise," says Godwin. "People are more open to asking for advice when they encounter issues, focus intently on their own work, offer to help if they finish with time to spare and support each other."
The laboratory-wide assessment also brought about a multitude of small changes such as personal accountability for quality control on every case worked on and individual focus on time management and technique. "This has been an organic process," says Unique's production manager. "It has evolved with a series of small changes that yield significant results and 'what can we do better or smarter?' is a weekly refrain in production meetings. People feel empowered to improve."
After three months of preparation, the laboratory tested the shorter workweek and the results were so positive that the lab never turned back to a five-day schedule. "The efficiency of the new systems shocked us," says Godwin. Cases were often finished before the deadline; because each technician was focusing on quality assurance, remake rates were reduced; and, since so many people had previously been working extra hours, the new 10-hour day felt like a regular day.
As with any major change, wrinkles emerged, like forgetting Friday was not a workday when scheduling deadlines and the fact that Friday turned out to be the day the lab received the greatest number of cases. To adjust, they upgraded some clients' shipping service and altered the shipping personnel's hours. They also cross-trained technicians to help with model and die on Monday mornings to get cases moving through the laboratory.
But along with those wrinkles came gems, especially in terms of employee morale and camaraderie. "People are laughing and talking, and having fun being a team," says Godwin. Employees also gleefully talk about saving 20% on commuting costs and are thriving with an extra day to spend with families, working out in the gym, hiking, golfing, pursuing artistic interests, digging into hobbies, or just plain relaxing.
The shorter workweek has also boosted the laboratory's bottom line. Utility savings are projected to be $6,760 annually, overtime costs have dropped by an astonishing 76.9% as a result of the focus on efficiency and, consequently, capacity for growth is now 20% without hiring new technicians. But, to Oxley, the most important thing is "to be in touch with the quality of life of our employees. It's not just about them making money for the company. It's about getting the job done and still having quality of life. It goes hand in hand."