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Small businesses sometimes have to deal with wicked problems. Over 20 years ago, I worked for two different dentists. The first man, Dr. J., gave me a job as a dental assistant and agreed to give me on-the-job training. He was a good doctor andtaught me volumes about the dental profession in just four months.

On the positive side, this man was adamant about state-of-the-art work, hygiene and ethics. Once a patient's front bridge came in from the lab made out of plastic instead of the promised material. She would never have known. He was upset; she needed the best or it'd have to be redone in a few years. He "ate" the cost and reordered the promised material.Dr. J. had just finished dental school, had a practice and school loans to pay off, a wife pregnant with their second child, and the ambition to get all these things settled as soon as possible.

We started work at 7 a.m. and finished when the patients stopped coming. The last one was scheduled at 5:30 p.m. We had no breaks, didn't stop for lunch (someone picked up something from the local diner around 3 p.m.), weren't allowed to smoke, talk on the phone or waste anything - either time or supplies. Everything was re-used - even disposable gloves were cleaned, powdered and autoclaved.

On the negative side, Dr. J. was not a pleasant man. He was a jerk! There were three people in the office who were his slaves. We weren't even paid minimum wage. Once his wife came in to pick up the little TV he had in his office so their little girl could watch "Sesame Street," which didn't come in on their big TV. He left the patient he was working on and stormed into the street shouting "That's MY TV!" We were all so embarrassed. He was impossible to please and never showed appreciation for anything we did or put up with. What would you do?

I went to work for Dr. R., a "super" guy. Everyone loved him. He paid the "going" wage, had been set up for over 25 years, the office was paid for and his clientele established. All clergy, regardless of religious affiliation, was given free dental care. When I mentioned that my roommate and I didn't have anything in our fridge, he bought us some steaks at the little market across the street. At Christmas time, the office was inundated with coffee cakes, cookies and special treats from patients.

But I had learned at Dr. J's a lot about the craft itself - how one should take as little actual enamel as possible when drilling out a cavity. I was taught about the correct "bits" to put on the drill so appropriate care could be afforded the patient. Dr. R. used what Dr. J. referred to as "the basketball" when he drilled. It took out the cavity all right - and anything else that was in the way. But it was fast. Then Dr. R. would tell me to "prep it for a gold inlay" (depending on the family).

I also was aware that Dr. R. used a drug for root canals that was bought on the black market. It was from China and very effective. Once the root canal was cleaned out, this product could be counted on for completely sealing the canal. The big problem was that if there was even a minute break from the root canal, the patient's mandible could end up being embalmed since one of the main ingredients was formaldehyde.

So who was the "good doctor"? Perhaps everything is just a matter of priorities. Maybe one's status in life changes the definitions of "wicked problems."

Dr. J. has gotten a divorce, remarried and built a huge house in a prestigious part of town. Dr. R.'s office was in a complex that caught fire at the other end of the building. So we had to cart the most valuable stuff out of the basement. He had all his records, IRS files, dental gold, diamond disks . . .and what did we drag out? Decoys! Duck decoys his wife wouldn't let him keep in their house.