Our staff—a term I use delicately for the moment, as it includes only Dr. Sharon and I—recently attended the 2011 Greater New York Dental Meeting, which was held a week ago at the Javits Center. Although I've often visited the state of New York, I've never before been all the way down to the capital. While the conference did not afford us much time to play the tourist, we did manage to see Times Square and take in a show while we were there. It was an informative few days, packed with interesting seminars, reunions with colleagues and an enormous expo featuring thousands of products and services. There were a number of outstanding presentations offered. While Dr. Sharon attended the seminars oriented toward dentists, I was free to attend the seminars on administration. Among the presenters, Kirk Behrendt of ACT Dental stood out from the crowd, noticeably for the depth of his analysis and the hilarious delivery of his presentations. His rendition of a frustrated dentist trying to explain how insurance plans can sometimes compromise patient treatment, à laJack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men", literally had people crying tears of laughter.

Kirk is the CEO of ACT Dental, a company that helps American dentists provide "highly personalized care" to their patients. One of the ways he does this is by guiding them through a process of identifying the systems they use to deliver their services to their patients. By "system" is meant each of the processes used in day-to-day work in their clinics; from how the receptionist greets patients to how insurance claims are processed and filed. The philosophy behind the approach is that by taking the time to clearly define each system, the dental team can then begin to make each process more efficient. Their objective is essentially to produce predictable, reliable patient care, especially with regard to: patient health, finances and satisfaction with dental care.

Mr. Behrendt has effectively found a way to analyze the structure of a dental clinic in a relatively simple and straightforward manner. To underline the importance of systems in any business, Kirk gave the example of the efficiency of Starbucks employees in New York, where some of the busiest locations serve 300 customers per hour during peak periods. If they were only serving plain coffee to that many customers, it would be considered a tiring yet straightforward task. However, when you order a "tall half-skinny half-1 percent extra hot split quad shot (two shots decaf, two shots regular) latte with whip" (or another of the roughly 70,000 combinations), the staff still present you with precisely what you asked for.

Many of you know why. Despite the complexity of the order you give to the kid behind the counter, he or she will follow the system they have in place: they write your name on the cup, fill in the six boxes on the side and pass the cup to the next staff member. Mr. Behrendt remarks that in some of the bigger Starbucks, he suspects the employees don't even know each other all that well, and yet are still able to work as a team to provide a service.

Certainly, having employees work in a chain to produce a product doesn't produce the most creative results. Dental staff members must not only be highly skilled, but they must be intensely curious and mindful in carrying out their tasks. However, the preceding example does illustrate a profound point. When the members of a dental team clearly define who is responsible for meeting which of a patient's needs, and then go a step further by systematizing their process, two things are certain: the service they provide will be increasingly effective, and they will be able to reproduce it time and again.