Empowering service workers has acquired almost a “born again” religious fervor. Tom Peters calls it “purposeful chaos.” Robert Waterman dubs it “directed autonomy.” It has also been called the “art of improvisation.”
Yet in the mid-1970s, the production-line approach to service was the darling child of service gurus. They advocated facing the customer with standardized, procedurally driven operations. Should we now abandon this approach in favor of empowerment?
Unfortunately, there is no simple, clear-cut answer. In this article we try to help managers think about the question of whether to empower by clarifying its advantages and disadvantages, describing three forms that empower employees to different degrees, and presenting five contingencies that managers can use to determine which approach best fits their situation. We do not intend to debunk empowerment, rather we hope to clarify why to empower (there are costs, as well as benefits), how to empower (there are alternatives), and when to empower (it really does depend on the situation).
The Production-Line Approach
In two classic articles, the “Production-Line Approach to Service” and the “Industrialization of Service,” Theodore Levitt described how service operations can be made more efficient by applying manufacturing logic and tactics.1 He argued:
Manufacturing thinks technocratically, and that explains its success. . . . By contrast, service looks for solutions in the performer of the task. This is the paralyzing legacy of our inherited attitudes: the solution to improved service is viewed as being dependent on improvements in the skills and attitudes of the performers of that service.
While it may pain and offend us to say so, thinking in humanistic rather than technocratic terms ensures that the service sector will be forever inefficient and that our satisfactions will be forever marginal.2
He recommended (1) simplification of tasks, (2) clear division of labor, (3) substitution of equipment and systems for employees, and (4) little decision-making discretion afforded to employees. In short, management designs the system, and employees execute it.
McDonald’s is a good example. Workers are taught how to greet customers and ask for their order, including a script for suggesting additional items. They learn a set procedure for assembling the order (for example, cold drinks first, then hot ones), placing items on the tray, and placing the tray where customers need not reach for it. There is a script and a procedure for collecting money and giving change.