Step 5: Create a winning culture

May 1, 2004
Take a look around you. They're everywhere. They're riding Harley Davidsons. They're dressed up like Mr. Spock at Star Trek conventions.

Barry Polansky, DMD

Take a look around you. They're everywhere. They're riding Harley Davidsons. They're dressed up like Mr. Spock at Star Trek conventions. We used to see them at airports dressed in long robes and soliciting money for Hare Krishna. They're members of just a few of the cults we see all around us. A cult is a group of people who share the same beliefs and practices of behavior. Many people think the word "cult" is a negative. In truth, people seek out others who share their beliefs. People are begging to be led, and when they find an organization that supports their beliefs, they rally behind it.

If enough people celebrate the beliefs of a cult, it grows. Entire religions started out as small cults. Many people in our society shun the notion of cults. They prefer to think of themselves as nonconformists, and by staying away from organizations like this they can preserve their individuality. I was one of those staunch individualists.

When I first started my journey with The Pankey Institute, I was concerned about its reputation as a cult. I soon learned the philosophy of L.D. Pankey was one that inspires the dentist to create his or her own philosophy rather than just buy into what gets taught there. I know that sounds strange, even paradoxical, but it's true. Very few Pankey practices are the same. They're like Volkswagens — you get the basic car, but individual owners create their own personalized models through their unique styles.

Each individual practice creates its own culture. Some years ago, I had a patient who told me that being a member of my practice was like enrolling in a religion. That frightened me back then, but today I have come to see that it is one of the reasons I enjoy my practice so much. It is filled with people of similar beliefs and values. People buy into the culture. The culture of the practice gives people a feeling of empowerment and fulfillment. Patients and staff enjoy being part of a unique group — proud, actually. When I think of the practice I created, I think more about the culture of excellence rather than the physical building or the dentistry.

Everything I have written about is reflected in the culture of the practice. The mission, values, goals, rules, rituals, and systems all come together as this loose definition of culture. In the end, the culture becomes the strategy. It informs and defines our daily activities and is the reason our patients send their friends and family to our practice. The key benefit of a culture is that we can expect a certain level of behavior from the constituents. We begin to know one another on a more personal level, and come to expect consistent behaviors and attitudes.

Too many dentists, though, have no philosophy. They remind me of little toy cars that change direction every time they meet resistance. Every day, these practices reinvent themselves. Sometimes they reinvent themselves over again during same day. These cultures are chaotic and confusing. They create stress for everyone including the patients. I don't think this is a conscious action on the part of the dentist.

I choose to practice comprehensive dentistry. By "comprehensive," I mean a practice that covers all aspects of dentistry so I can offer patients a complete range of treatment options. L.D. Pankey's mission was to help people keep their teeth in maximum comfort, function, health, and aesthetics. That's comprehensive! That about says it all from the perspective of what our patients want from our profession.

I have a deep-seated belief that everyone wants comprehensive dentistry. I also believe it is part of our job to educate patients so they learn what they truly want even though they may be unable to express it. Part of my practice culture is to strive to educate patients to understand what we can do to help them keep their teeth for their whole lives, inclusive of every aspect of their dental health.

These are the rules in my house. This is the culture I have created. I've defined the rules and "own" the game. And this is one of the main reasons I'm a happy dentist.

Barry Polansky, DMD, practices dentistry in Cherry Hill, N.J. He is a member of the Visiting Faculty of The Pankey Institute for Advanced Dental Education and author of the book The Art of the Examination: Why Patient Care Goes Beyond Clinical Correctness. Dr. Polansky also publishes a monthly newsletter titled Private Practice, and may be reached toll-free at (866) 428-4028, and also at

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