The Imperfect Path to Perfection

The Imperfect Path to PerfectionIntroduction—Brazil, 1995

Ten years before founding his own orthodontic practice, Tim Lyons found himself standing face-to-face with a naked woman.

Her name was Poohan and she was a member of a recently discovered Indian Tribe in the Amazon Rain Forest. Tim was part of a group that was filming a documentary about the tribe. It should have been a pure moment of scientific awe. Unfortunately, not all was well with the woman.

An abscess had formed around one of the woman’s teeth, leaving her skin stretched taunt over an infection that engulfed her face. As an educated individual, he knew the abscess would continue to worsen without treatment. But as an enlightened observer, he knew that they couldn’t introduce any modern medicine or western technology to the isolated tribe.

Tim knew the intense compassion he felt towards Poohan would stay with him for the rest of his life. What he didn’t know was that this connection between the promise of technology and the power of human relations would be a theme that would shape his upcoming professional career.

Today Dr. Tim Lyons loves the cool new tools of his trade as much as any other tech-savvy young orthodontist. Both offices in his practice outside of Sacramento,California are outfitted with the latest digital tools from the likes of the i-CAT® CBCT Scanner, iTero® digital imaging, OrthoPlex 3D digital modeling software and Dolphin Management systems to name a few. He was an early adopter of indirect bonding techniques,and his business operations run on top-of-the-line practice-management software.

“To be honest, I’m just really competitive about things like that,” Lyons says. “I’m not rash or anything, but if there’s something new out there and there’s good evidence showing it’s going to be beneficial for my patients, I’m going to grab it.”

Lyons enjoys keeping his eye out for the next generation of innovations, and these days he’s tracking the advances that may soon bring computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing into the orthodontic practice. These CAD/CAM technologies are already making a splash in dentistry, where tech savvy practices are now capable of in-house design and production of crowns.

“It’s really not that far-fetched at this point to think about someday soon having a mini-robot that’s bending Nickel-Titanium wire in a way that human hands just can’t do,” he says. “That’d be pretty cool, wouldn’t it?”

But for all his fascination with such advances, Lyons is quick to stress that they are only one part of the puzzle that makes for a successful 21st century practice. Step into a Lyons Orthodontic office and you’ll get a striking visual sense for another key piece in that puzzle.

These once-traditional spaces have been transformed into eye-popping stage sets, complete with jungle-like trees here, a crumbling boulder there, and a waterfall across the way. Lyons called in family connections among the movie makers in Hollywood to locate the set designers who brought to life his vision of a fun, welcoming space for young patients.

“My whole thing is when you walk into an office and it looks like a dental office and it smells like a dental office, you get a sense right away of where you’re at,” he says. “But if you walk into an office and there’s fresh cookies and fresh coffee and it looks really cool and there are massage chairs and a fish tank, then you know you’re in the right place.”

That one-two punch of technological innovation and patient-centered care has enabled Lyons to build one of the largest orthodontic practices in the Sacramento region. Just 40 years old, he launched the practice in 2004, simultaneously opening a new office and purchasing a tiny practice from a retiring owner.

Nine years later, Lyons is seeing between 800 and 1,000 patients a year at his two offices, one in Fair Oaks and the other in El Dorado Hills. He recently brought in a second orthodontist, Kristy Merriman, to help manage the caseload.

“I’ve always been hyper-focused on growth—that’s my big thing,” he says. “With the practice I bought, we doubled that business in the first year, and then we doubled it again the year after that. It was the same with the new office—we just grew really, really fast.”

That’s not bad for someone who nearly didn’t make it through his first year of dental school. The path Lyons followed into orthodontics actually began during his college years at Brigham Young University, where he played defensive back on the football team and had absolutely no idea what kind of career he wanted to pursue.

One day during those undergraduate years he sat down with a career-placement test where your answers to 300 questions are matched up with folks who are thriving and happy in various jobs across the spectrum.

“My top three results were reverend, football coach, and orthodontist—how strange is that?” he says with a laugh. His curiosity piqued, Lyons arranged an informational visit to a well-regarded orthodontist near the BYU campus in Provo, UT.

“I walked into that practice, and it was game on,” he recalls. “He had all these kids in there, and ­I just love being around kids. He was high-fiving and laughing with all of his patients—it was just a great environment, and I knew right then that I wanted to do something like that.”

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The Lyons Family Enjoying the Beauty of Maui, Hawaii.

So Lyons enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in Baltimore, and that’s where his career plans nearly came undone. His wife, Kamee Aliessa, gave birth to the first of their five children just a couple of weeks into his first semester. Lyons soon found himself struggling to keep up with his courses.

As the semester drew to a close, Lyons called his father to ask for advice about possibly dropping out. The elder Lyons worked in the blue-collar auto-wrecking business, and his son describes him both as the “hardest-working person I’ve ever met in my life” and “not exactly a man of many words.”

After listening to his son’s troubles, Lyons’ father said nothing at first, wanting to take a little time to think it over before weighing in. An hour later, he called his son back with this piece of advice: “Naw, you’re not gonna quit. Quitting is something we don’t do.”

“So I stuck it out,” Lyons says, “and I’ve got to tell you, that was the best decision my dad and I ever made together.” In 2002, Lyons graduated at the top of his class in the orthodontics program at the New York University School of Dentistry.

Today, Lyons strives to run a practice where the new-school technologies he loves meet an old-school ethos of patient-centered care and customer service. On occasion, that entails recognizing the difference between innovative techniques that make a difference for patients and time-honored ones that are still the way to go.

“For example, I think there is always going to be a need for brackets and wires in orthodontics,” he says. “Plastic is wonderful, and it can do so many things, and everybody is trying to be really creative with it. But I see cases that are just better treated with brackets, period.”

The focus on customer-centric care and service at Lyons Orthodontics goes well beyond the fun décor and reception-room amenities. It’s built into every system in place at the practice, from the way staffers greet patients when they arrive all the way through to the congratulatory farewells at the end of their final visit.

“We’re not oral surgeons, where we’re going to see patients twice and that’s it.” Lyons says. “We see our patients regularly for years and years, and the biggest thing to me is I want every single person who walks in to my practice to want them to leave with a smile on their face.”

The key to that success in that realm really doesn’t change as new technologies come on line. As Lyons puts it, “If everybody did exactly what we told them to do the first time, we’d have incredible results every time,” he says. “But this is a field where really, success is based on the compliance of 11, 12, and 13 year olds—that’s the number one challenge.”

Lyons dubs the compliance-building strategy at his practice as “BRT”—an acronym for “Building Relationships of Trust.”

“Sure, technology is a big part of our success,” Lyons says, “but the relationships we build with patients and families are equally huge. If success in orthodontics is all about motivating a kid to wear rubber bands, well, I just can’t see a software that’s going to be able to do that.”

“Encouraging compliance is more of an art form than a technique. Success here depends more than anything else on making quick, accurate judgments about who people are, what their comfort zones look like, and where they find their inner motivation.”

“As an orthodontist you’ve got to reach every single person as an individual,” Lyons says. “You have to figure out what makes them tick, and there is no cookie-cutter approach for that. Some people want to talk about their dog. Some people want to laugh. Some people just want the facts. You’ve got to find what that thing is for every individual, the thing that’ll help you build up the trust level.”

To one degree or another, that challenge needs to be addressed at just about everything that happens at Lyons Orthodontics, which is why Lyons takes such great care with all of his hiring decisions.

“To excel in this BRT area, you have to have your systems dialed in at all times, from the moment a person walks into your reception area,” he says. “One of the most important things I can do as a business owner is to hire fantastic people who can run those systems the way they need to run without someone looking over their shoulder and managing them.”

In looking back on his first decade in the field, Lyons is more convinced than ever that nurturing honest, trusting relationships is the key to the success of his practice. It brings him back once again to the life lessons he learned from his father.

“My dad, he never had a contract in his business,” Lyons says. “Everything was a handshake, and his word was his bond. I honestly think now that that’s the biggest maker or breaker of success in orthodontics, too—being able to build a relationship of trust and doing it quickly.

If you can do that, the sky’s the limit.”

If Dr. Timothy Lyons is ever tempted to let the successes of his accomplishments go to his head, his family serves as a formidable anchor to humility. His father-in-law is a film writer, producer and director. He’s won an Academy Award. His siblings, on both his and his wife’s side, are equally well-credentialed. One sold a software company to Apple for somewhere north of $65 million dollars. Another does public speaking. Yet another is a lawyer. Another makes horror films and yet another is a commercial director.

While Tim may be the tech guy, dropping the occasional ‘dude’ into the conversation to resonate with his patients, his wife is the Yang to his Yin. A classically trained harpist, she receives considerably less high fives than her husband, but considerably more black tie invitations. As a full time mother, she plays less than she used to, but she still gets out to play the occasional formal event or wedding.

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Tim and Kamme in Maui with Their Children, Kassidy, Kapri, Walker, Ryder and Rockwell

Tim and his wife are the proud parents of five children. Like his own father, he’s hoping his work ethic will influence his own children in whatever path they choose. So far one son and one daughter have vowed to move into orthodontics.

This article published in 2013 OrthoWorld.

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