How veterinary practice owners are like Japanese warlords

How veterinary practice owners are like Japanese warlords

Defending your business against chaos is your paramount mission.
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Feb 01, 2013


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In the middle ages, Japanese warlords protected their homes with well-trained guard dogs. They knew that the minimum needed to protect a four-sided home was five dogs: one on each exterior wall—and one on the inside. Then, as today, most institutions were destroyed from within.

You may not brandish a samurai sword, but this holds true for your veterinary practice as well. Managing a large practice is an exercise in holding the forces of chaos at bay—in other words, herding cats. Multiple personality disorder rages epidemically within veterinary practice walls. Mission statements—where they exist—are often either misinterpreted or ignored, destroying even the best client service intentions and crumbling your otherwise stalwart edifice from within.

Avoid a demise

A veterinary practice needs one leader and one set of well-communicated policies in order to keep the practice from disintegrating. Anything else leads to the chaos I find in so many of the struggling practices that bring me in to salvage their profits. The common refrain is, "We have three doctors who each demand three different ways of doing everything, and it drives us nuts!"

Your job as a practice owner is to eliminate this disparity. Keep the business solvent and functioning smoothly by using your practice manager to manage any and all nonmedical aspects of the practice. To do this, you need to follow a job description like everybody else. Here it is.

Rules of the reign

Here's what you need to do—and not do—for the success of your practice.

1 Define the practice mission and be sure your staff can stick to it.

2 Set monthly goals and monitor daily progress to fulfill them.

3 Actively lead by setting a high personal standard for all to follow.

4 Refuse to allow staff friction that could interfere with any individual staff member's duties.

5 Eliminate any staff member who doesn't perform well after coaching.

6 Handle any veterinary practice legal matters immediately after consulting with professionals.

7 Determine the practice's financial break-even point with the aid of accounting professionals.

8 Maintain ordering and billing to keep expenses below revenue.

9 Establish a budget for each profit center of the practice.

10 Design policies, programs and plans to enhance productivity.

11 Use a practice manager to monitor employee compliance with policies.

12 Hold weekly meetings with your practice manager to ensure that programs, plans and projects are being performed properly.

13 See to it that the practice manager puts all orders and policies in writing and communicates properly with the entire staff.

14 Review the practice manager's job performance quarterly.

15 Maintain your role as final authority on firing a staff member.

16 Hire veterinarians only—leave the rest of the hiring to the practice manager.

17 Get out of the way to allow staff members to proceed on their own and grow while you encourage their input.

18 Don't play favorites with staff members—treat all employees with dignity and respect.

19 Refuse to listen to problems from employees unless they're accompanied by a proposed solution.

20 Hold staff meetings twice a month, setting goals and targets while handling problems that can be addressed by the staff as a whole.

Excercising power

If managing your practice has been a continual headache, it's probably because your organizational methods lead to employee confusion and chaos. The key to implementing a successful and productive practice team is effective communication. Set goals for your practice and keep your staff informed about the programs and projects you intend to implement to achieve your goals. The more informed your employees are and the greater their understanding, the more likely they are to work in concert with you. Most practice owners communicate goals more effectively in a letter than a lecture. Don't be afraid to put it on paper to help your employees share your goals and aspirations.

Train and encourage your staff members to use written requests or proposals, office memos and policies. And then respond to written communications without delay. When people don't get feedback on their memos within a reasonable period of time, they become less willing to communicate—this defeats your goals and creates more problems.

When you're targeting weekly and monthly goals, spend some time planning before each staff meeting. Determine how much was actually accomplished in terms of dollars and cents for the week or month and what can realistically be produced in the upcoming time period. Review the role of each staff member in achieving this goal. The more each staff member takes responsibility for the practice as a whole, the better your clinic will perform. Each staff person needs to come to the meeting prepared to contribute ideas toward meeting goals.

Your practice manager is your ally. The two of you should continually work to establish strong leadership for the team. Any problems or disagreements between you should always be dealt with outside of the staff meeting. Meet together before each staff meeting to coordinate all the matters you need to address with the team.

Making the rules

To create stability for the practice, update your written policies regularly. Every new problem you or someone on your staff encounters should generate a written policy so there's no confusion when the same problem arises in the future. When you write a policy, place the original in a binder marked "policies," then send a copy to each staff member, indicating that they're required to read the policy and initial a posted copy acknowledging that they've done so. Staff members should keep and maintain their own copies of the practice's policy manual.

New policies need to be handled by the practice manager, but he or she needs to know your exact thoughts on the issue. Your practice manager can write the policies and submit them to you for final approval, suggesting to you areas where additional thought is needed. Staff members should also be encouraged to propose policies via the practice manager.

The only way to avoid a chaotic demise is to make sure everyone in the veterinary clinic is on the same page. This will ensure your practice won't fold from within and pets are getting the care they need.

Consultant Dr. Gerald Snyder publishes the newsletter Veterinary Productivity. He can be reached at 112 Harmon Cove Towers, Secaucus, NJ 07094; (800) 292-7995; or
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