Theory of Service

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Theory of service means knowledge of what is permanent and normal in producing a service. Traditionally, this knowledge has been accumulated in tacit form in the professional skill of the people involved in the activity, but today more and more of it is being documented in writing by researchers.

Most studies of service use either one of two alternative approaches, that is, they have either descriptive or normative purpose, as can be seen in the diagram on the right. The two resulting theory paradigms differ quite much from each other even when the object of study is the same.

Descriptive theory contains knowledge about past or present activities of producing or using a service but does not much help for modifying it to correspond better to latest requirements. Academic or historical studies are often of this type. They are sometimes categorized in two types: extensive studies of a large number of cases, and intensive studies of one or a few cases.

Normative theory of service contains generally applicable knowledge and tools that can be used in producing the service, especially for optimizing it or planning improvements to it. Research for creating normative theory is usually extensive because it needs a large number of cases for its material.

Moreover, a third type of research can take place in connection of the "request of service" marked in the diagram. It means simply studying and planning the execution of individual tasks, for example preparing for a new type of service, or removing problems in existing service. These case-specific or "intensive" studies seldom produce generally applicable new theory and they will not be discussed in the following.

Subdivisions of the theory of service. Theory is created by doing research, but the difficulty is that in order to be effective, research projects can only study a few limited questions at a time. The number of important questions that any field of service has to deal with, is many times larger than an empirical research project could handle. If somebody thus wants to make a larger compilation - such as a "Handbook of the xx-service" - this has to be made not from empiria, but instead by studying numerous earlier published research reports. Indeed, such service-specific compilations of theory have been made for many important branches of service. They will not be enumerated here, the main reason for it being that they are too numerous and besides they often soon lose their actuality because of the swift development of the technologies of service.

The goal of the service is another possibility of categorizing theory of service. There are only a few important types of goals of service that have attracted the interest of researchers, which means that by studying them it will be easier to get a good total view on the present theory of service than by perusing hundreds of handbooks of different services. These often used points of view in the current theory of service include:

Technology of the service

Almost all services today make use of special machinery, and each of these machines operates on the basis of a specific technology, i.e. on a base of knowledge about the specific operation of service. An overview of the various technologies related to a given type of service usually follows the typical process of the service.

Economy of the service

The economic study of a service aims at finding an optimum between benefits and expenditures of the activity. For finding an optimum, several statistics are used, such as productivity and profitability. These are theoretical concepts (marked in red in the diagram below) which can be constructed on the basis of a few directly measurable variables (on yellow background in the diagram).

Process of service

Instruments of economic management of a service activity include budgeting the incomes and expenditures, setting objectives for the productivity of the most important operations; follow-up, measurement and reporting of all of these; and comparing the reported statistics to the agreed objectives.

Productivity Standards are a handy instrument when setting targets. They define the productivity of normal good pace of work, measured as work hours per unit of service given, under various circumstances. These standards can then be used in work planning and possibly for defining work incentives or salaries. The statistics to base the standard on can be obtained either from the service producer's own files, or in co-operation between several producers.

Management by objectives is an arrangement where each employee agrees with his or her superior on the objectives for the next period's work in advance. The objectives are mostly economic. In this way the supervisor can clearly express which aspects in the activity are important from the company's point of view, and the employee gets more freedom in planning how the work is done. This arrangement persuades both parties to contemplate the purpose of the work and the means that are most effective to fulfil the agreed goals.

Management by objectives became very popular at the end of 20 century. Its weak point is that it is too easy to overlook the quality of the work and other such goals that cannot easily be measured, which means that these goals should receive the special attention of any researcher that assists in developing a system of management by objectives.

Quality systems

Many large industries today have a quality system, a special arrangement for the task of defining and steering the quality of the activity. It usually consists of:

Quality systems are described in the standard ISO 8402 and in the series of standards ISO 9000. Most countries also have a system of official certification of those companies where a standardized quality system is operative.

Timing of service

The goal in time scheduling of services is to integrate all the tasks in the chain of producing the service so that no unnecessary waiting occurs and each task is given enough time but no more. Methods of scheduling include the standards of productivity and task programming techniques such as Gantt and PERT diagrams, like the diagram below, and the critical path method.

PERT diagram

Setting targets for timing is a powerful technique of management because it is easy to define exact timing targets and follow them up. Targets thus often are attained successfully, but there is the usual risk of management by objectives - forgetting those goals that cannot be measured.

Another trap to be avoided in programming is that in the initial enthusiasm of a development project the objective for timing can become too tight, which can then spoil the possibilities for doing high-quality work.

Occupational safety and health

In the study of ergonomics or "human factors engineering" the following straining and risk factors of work are discussed:

The theory of occupational health and safety includes allowable limits for all the above-mentioned factors, as well as the methods for measuring them and their harmful effects. All industrial plants in developed countries are subject to periodical control of these topics.

Motivation and psychology of work

Many of the targets for a service activity that have been enumerated above, are normally set by the management without discussing them neither with the employees nor with their delegates such as shop stewards. The result often is that many employees fail to understand why a target - which can be arduous to achieve - is important for the company, their motivation to work diminish, and they perhaps consider leaving their jobs. Lately several researchers have tried to find out what topics really are important for the employees.

Frederick Herzberg et al. found (1959) that human motivation factors fall into two groups: "dissatisfiers", and "satisfiers". These are not simply opposites, but rather like sensations in the same way as pain and pleasure. The strongest satisfying factors, or motivators, all had to do directly with the person's particular job:

Potentially negative factors in motivation are:

The manager should see to it that these do not annoy the worker, but even when they are arranged ideally they alone cannot motivate the worker. That is why Herzberg did not call them "motivators" but maintenance factors or hygiene factors.

Research of motivation, or "human factors" of work has since continued until our day, and on the basis of its findings many improvements have been made in the conditions of work. Nevertheless, the satisfaction of employees has not generally increased. The reason perhaps is that the expectations of employees have ascended simultaneously.

Theory of autonomous groups

Many people have today great confidence on science, and when encountering a problem they often think that the best method is starting a project and hiring a competent researcher. However, there is still an alternative method, albeit ancient, where the existing team itself takes care of its working methods and updates them so that problems never spring up or, when they do, they are taken care of and removed. Such an autonomous team itself detects the sprouting problem, works out a remedy for it and modifies accordingly the working routines of the team. When the team belongs to a larger organization, great changes in its operation must first be accepted by the management and those other departments that are involved, of course.

Often cited advantages of autonomous activity are:

The theory and practice of autonomous groups was first developed by Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). They are especially useful in the case that a permanent team of an organization has encountered so difficult problems in their daily work that the team or its leader cannot solve them. A suitable method in this case is Action Research, the theory of which is explained in the paragraph Action Research and Theory.

Action research can be seen as medicine for an accidental illness of team work, but smaller doses of the same medicine can be used for preventing a future illness in the normal daily work of a team. This would mean regular joint discussions which guarantee that every member of the team really understands the collective purpose of the work and is willing, for its benefit, to modify his or her own activity when needed. Principles for such collective discussions can be found under the title "Democratic Debate".

A special advantage of the action research method when used for developing a service activity is that it is often possible to invite a few users of the service to participate in the project. This makes it possible to steer the development so that not only the internal efficiency of the service activity will be improved, but also its external effect from the point of view of the customer.

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August 3, 2007.
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