The Empowerment of Service Workers: What, Why, How, and When

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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.


1. T. Levitt, “Production-Line Approach to Service,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1972, pp. 41–52; and

T. Levitt, “Industrialization of Service,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1976, pp. 63–74

2. Levitt (1972).

3. D. Tansik, “Managing Human Resource Issues for High-Contact Service Personnel,” in Service Management Effectiveness, eds. D. Bowen, R. Chase, and T. Cummings (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990).

4. R. Zemke and D. Schaaf, The Service Edge: 101 Companies That Profit from Customer Care (New York: New American Library, 1989), p.68.

5. As quoted in Zemke and Schaaf (1989), p. 68.

6. J. Carlzon, Moments of Truth (New York: Ballinger, 1987).

7. V. Zeithaml, A. Parasuraman, and L.L. Berry, Delivering Quality Service: Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations (New York: The Free Press, 1990). See also:

B. Schneider and D. Bowen, “Employee and Customer Perceptions of Service in Banks: Replication and Extension,” Journal of Applied Psychology 70 (1985): 423–433.

8. Schneider and Bowen (1985).

9. Ibid.

10. Zeithaml, Parasuraman, and Berry (1990).

11. C. Goodwin and I. Ross, “Consumer Evaluations of Responses to Complaints: What's Fair and Why,” Journal of Services Marketing 4 (1990): 53–61.

12. See E.E. Lawler III, High-Involvement Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986).

13. See E.E. Lawler III, “Choosing an Involvement Strategy,” Academy of Management Executive 2 (1988): 197–204.

14. See for example J.R. Hackman and G.R. Oldham, Work Redesign (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1980).

15. Ibid.

16. R.J. Sutton and A. Rafaeli, “Untangling the Relationship between Displayed Emotions and Organizational Sales: The Case of Convenience Stores,” Academy of Management Journal 31 (1988): 461–487

17. E.E. Lawler III, G.E. Ledford, Jr., and S.A. Mohrman, Employee Involvement in America: A Study of Contemporary Practice (Houston: American Productivity & Quality Center, 1989).

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