Making things happen: Project management in the dental office

Oct. 1, 2003
Increase office efficiency with project-management techniques.

by Anita Jupp

When we talk about project managers and project management, we typically think of projects centered around software and global corporations, not dental practices. But project management is simply a temporary assignment carried out to achieve a goal. To reach the goal, a project manager applies organizational skills to a timeline, a budget, and resources. Those project management principles are applicable anywhere, regardless of the size of the project.

According to 5 Phase Project Management, project management usually is comprised of five key processes. They include:

• Defining
• Planning
• Organizing
• Controlling
• Closing

It sounds a bit formal and hefty for the average dental practice, but if we take a look at those key processes, we'll find that we can easily apply the same principles in any dental setting.

Defining a project begins by identifying a problem or a need and listing the project's objectives. For a typical practice, the need or problem could be anything from outdated marketing material to a new imaging and patient-education system.

Planning the project focuses on listing the project actions (the work involved), estimating the time required to complete it, and budgeting for the cost.

Executing the project includes assigning tasks to specific team members, as well as scheduling dates for completing the tasks. For small projects, the project manager may very well be the only one working on project tasks.

Controlling the project focuses on being an effective manager and maintaining control of the project by making sure tasks are completed, deadlines are met, the budget is under control, and status reports are available to every member of the team.

Closing the project includes tying up all loose ends, ensuring the client (the dentist, in this case) is satisfied with the results, and, if applicable, documenting the project.

Selecting a project manager

In the corporate world, project managers are typically strategic thinkers, highly organized people with good communication skills. In the dental practice, the same skills will apply, though projects will tend to be smaller. Ideally, projects can be assigned to any team member based on a number of factors:

Who has the most knowledge of the project?

1) Who is most interested in the project topic?
2) Who has the best organizational skills
3) Who can lead a team effectively and communicate positively?

Because of the small project sizes in a practice, I'd recommend assigning projects based on a combination of interest and expertise. Choose someone who can focus on the goal and bring enough energy and motivation to the project to see it through to the conclusion. Ideally, this method will give everyone on your team a chance to lead.

Other project ideas

In a dental practice, there are a variety of areas in which a dentist could employ project-management techniques to increase the efficiency of the office:

* Updated or new marketing literature and plans for the coming year
* A new computer or telephone system
* Purging patient charts. Admittedly, this won't be a popular project, but...
* Designing a new reception area or children's area
* Creating a web site for the practice
* Creating an office newsletter
* Designing new patient education brochures
* Organizing your dental supply system

Benefits to project management

Applying project-management principles in the dental office has many benefits.

• Helps increase the efficiency of the dental team with goal-oriented tasks.

• Since anyone can lead a project, managing a project will help boost your team members' self-confidence. It will also promote leadership qualities within each individual.

• Project management encourages accountability. If you assign someone to a project, it is that individual's responsibility to see it through .

Dentistry offers so many opportunities, and the changes in clinical dentistry and technology are amazing. Why not reach your full potential and enjoy the challenges? Teamwork is essential to managing projects to "make things happen."

Sample project: New marketing materials

Phase 1 — Defining

Dr. Smith (he's fictional!) wants to update the marketing material for his practice and produce a monthly newsletter for his patients. He doesn't have enough time to devote to defining the project, so he assigns the task to Lisa, his dental receptionist. Lisa identifies which brochures require updating and which style of newsletter would best benefit the office. Lisa documents her definitions.

Phase 2 — Planning

After identifying the problem, Lisa determines the actions required to complete the task . This includes finding out the costs, how much time it will take to complete, as well as preparing a list of the tasks involved. Lisa again documents her findings and presents a work list, a budget, and a schedule to Dr. Smith for approval (or presents her ideas during a staff meeting for discussion).

Phase 3 — Executing

After the project has been approved, Lisa assigns tasks to team members or herself (i.e., copy for the brochure) and to outside contractors (i.e., a graphic designer and a printer).

Phase 4 — Controlling

Lisa ensures that the project is running on schedule and that any team members or outside contractors are completing their tasks on schedule and within the budget guidelines. If Dr. Smith asks, she can provide accurate verbal reports about the progress and the budget. If anything needs to be changed at the last minute, it's Lisa's job to make sure it happens and to notify Dr. Smith of any subsequent schedule or budget changes.

Phase 5 — Closing

Lisa ensures that the new marketing materials arrive in good condition and closes her budget.

Updating marketing materials isn't necessarily a big project, but it does require organization and management. By applying simple project-management principles to the task, Dr. Smith has ensured himself of an organized method to reach his goal, with appropriate documentation, status reports, and delivery schedule. He's also added his stamp of approval along the way!

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