Chrissy Cambra’s Path to Managing the Research and Development Team at Design Ergonomics

Chrissy Cambra, Research & Development Manager at Design Ergonomics, has enjoyed an eclectic career, which makes her an ideal person to wrangle the people, products, systems, and client needs to coordinate the development of the products that make dental offices more efficient.

“I was a real estate agent in Las Vegas for several years,” Cambra says. “I also worked in restaurant and retail businesses in Florida. And my family owns a gas station in Massachusetts. As a kid, I was just always there and learned early on about the importance of dedication, putting the customer first, and working hard. My grandfather showed up for work at the gas station every day. The only day he didn’t work was Christmas.”

She’s also a single mother, juggling work with her daughter’s hectic schedule that includes ballet, tap, jazz, and lyrical dance as well as drama and the National Honor Society.

Keeping it positive

Cambra is a curious person, always open to learning from those around her. “I take something positive from every person that I’ve interacted with and put it into my life,” she says. “I’m always active and I’m always doing something new.”

Seven years ago, Dr. David Ahearn, Founder and President of Design Ergonomics, was looking for an Executive Assistant at the same time that Cambra had returned to New England and was looking for a new opportunity … and the pieces fit together perfectly.

“Dr. Ahearn has been my dentist since I was a child and he’s the only dentist I’ve ever had,” Cambra says. “When I learned about the job, I told him right up front that I’ve never been an Executive Assistant, but I’m a fast learner and am open to the challenge.”

As Dr. Ahearn tells it: “When I heard that Chrissy had returned to New England, I knew that I had to reach out. I honestly didn’t know what position she should fill. I just knew that you hire amazing people – and unleash them to do amazing things. And that is exactly what Chrissy has done!”

Because of her varied work and life experiences, Cambra was able to jump in right away and soon she was helping Dr. Ahearn run the organization.

Dr. Ahearn and Chrissy discussing Dental Workstation bin configuration

“I learned everything that was going on in the business quickly,” Cambra says. “If there was something Dr. Ahearn wrote, I typed it.  If there was someone who had an assignment, I made sure it got done. I went to every single department meeting and typed up the notes to make sure that Dr. Ahearn knew what was happening. The familiarity we had when I was his patient, grew into a working relationship centered on trust.”

Cambra describes herself as a planner. “I’m prepped for my day before I get to the office,” she says. “But then I come into work, and there are always a bunch of new challenges. There’s always something that comes up, but having a clear plan keeps me from getting blown off course. Our meetings happen as planned because the times are fixed, but the rest of my day involves people walking up to my desk with issues or problems come up that need to be solved. And then next thing you know, I’m like, Geez, it’s the end of the day! As any executive knows, I frequently find myself catching up on my work in the evenings or weekends.”

Chrissy leads the R&D team through a review of new product enhancements

Several years ago, when the company needed somebody to take on the role of Research & Development Manager, Cambra was an ideal but unusual candidate. She had the planning skills, knew all aspects of the company, and was excellent at pushing projects forward. However, she didn’t have R&D experience.

Just like when she took on the EA position without experience in that exact role, she did the same with becoming R&D Manager. “I did what I always do when I’m working towards a new goal,” Cambra says. “I find out who the subject matter experts are and learn everything I can from them. And no matter how much I learn about something, I always look for ways to keep growing. For this role, I’ve learned a lot about Agile project management and have then shared that knowledge throughout the company.”

An important aspect of her R&D work is to always be aware of where each and every project is in the development process. “I use Microsoft Project for that, which is awesome, because I’m able to pull up great visuals for the team to be able to look at,” she says.

Managing with consistent team visuals

Cambra quickly gained the respect of the nine R&D team members, including designers, engineers, materials experts, prototypers, and those who understand Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) to make sure that products can be built at scale in the factory.

Backlog, To Do, Doing, and Done: A visual system for team accountability

Cambra runs a weekly team meeting so that everybody can be aware of what’s being worked on. “When someone needs help, I say: ‘Let’s pull it up in the software. Let’s look at it. Let’s talk about the next milestones. What do you need? What are the risks that you see?’ Instead of everybody constantly having individual notes on paper, we work from consistent team visuals.”

Some of the projects that R&D is working on are big and strategic, like the creation of advanced dental office workstations. Other projects are less difficult to design, test, and build, but can still make a big difference in helping a dental office become much more efficient.

Chrissy, Alex, and Jeff discuss the development of a new product

A significant benefit for the R&D team is the ability to test equipment prototypes at the two dental practices that Dr. Ahearn owns and runs just a short distance from company headquarters. Dental office staff also help R&D by suggesting new product ideas to improve the systems they use every day.

Recently, R&D team members had been talking with doctors about how they use their equipment and they confirmed that the types of computers being used in Ops have changed in the past few years. “We’ve confirmed that computer sizes and spec changes will provide us with an opportunity to add more value to some of our cabinetry,” Cambra says. Many practices were doing away with the larger tower-style computers. What that meant is that there was an opportunity to redesign the cabinets to eliminate the computer tower storage and put that space to more efficient clinical use.

“Right now, we’re in the process of reevaluating our cabinets as technology evolves,” Cambra says. “We’ve developed some prototypes with a pull-down display for a notebook computer and a side position for a printer and re-working the area where the computers used to be in order to increase the volume of in-room bulk storage for a week’s worth of PPE. We’ll be testing soon. There are also a bunch of new products that are in development that I really can’t talk about just yet. Some projects are quite secret and in various stages of patent. Dr. Ahearn is constantly finding ways to improve how dentists provide care for their patients. There are also some dental specialty areas that we’re focused on right now that have created some super exciting challenges for the team.”