Looks better than mine, even w/o butter.

Looks better than mine, even w/o butter.*

I observed something this morning when making toast.  I don’t make toast often, but when I do, I tend to let it go for a few minutes before heading back into the kitchen to check on it, hovering outside the toaster oven to make sure I grab it when it’s “just right.”

Now, like you (I suspect), I tend to be a little annoyed by wasted time. Standing next to the toaster oven, tapping my foot impatiently, that’s definitely wasted time.  So I have developed a habit of “prepping” for the toast by scooping up the butter I’ll use on it and putting it on my plate.  But today it finally dawned on me that this prep routine (which I’ve done for years) really saves no time at all. It’s no quicker to pick the butter up off plate and put it on my toast than it would be to just take the butter out of its own container and spread it; the step of transferring it to the plate in advance is meaningless.  (In fact, when I do this the entire process usually ends up taking longer, since I rarely get just the right amount of butter on my plate — a mistake I wouldn’t make when just buttering the bread from the tub.)

Of course, I do get a personal payoff from this little activity: I am less bored while I wait for my toast. But even though I feel like I’m doing something, it actually makes me no more (and usually a bit less) productive.

Naturally, when I realized this, my mind immediately jumped to practice workflow, and how easy it is to be deceived by activities that feel like progress but actually have no effect — or even slow things down.

My favorite one of these, a subject that we wind up discussing with almost every practice we work with, is the central vitals station. Transferring patients from the reception area to the vitals station, then from the vitals station to the exam room, is one of those routines that is so common, everyone has come to perceive it as progress. But stopping to weigh patients and take their vitals, then instructing them to get up, follow you to the exam room, etc., takes longer than taking patients directly to the exam room would. It involves more steps, so it feels like more is accomplished.  And more work is being done — but more productivity does not result.

With the central vitals station, you often also have the problem of the station creating a bottleneck — waiting people who could be roomed, empty exam rooms that could be used, doctors paused that could be working, except that there’s a queue to get on that scale.

The solution is easy. Scales are cheap — put one in each exam room, along with BP equipment (better yet, get portable units for your MAs). Not only will you make your staff more efficient and improve your workflow, you’ll save your patients the embarrassment of being weighed in a hallway or other public area. (Trust me, at least some of your patients almost certainly detest this!)

Now, if you take my advice, you might have a few minutes of additional idle time in your practice workflow. Maybe you’ll eventually conclude you have enough extra capacity to add a daily visit for each of your clinicians — wouldn’t that be grand?  (And it certainly would be a genuine increase in productivity!) But if you were to act immediately to fill that bit of idle time with busy work, you might miss the opportunity to leverage it for real productivity. So fight the urge to immediately expunge every little bit of downtime from your workflow, and keep your eyes on the prizes of throughput, appointment access, and patient service.


*Photo (c) Kimberly Reinick – Fotolia

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