J. Service Science & Management, 2009, 2: 255-264
doi:10.4236/jssm.2009.24030 Published Online December 2009 (www.SciRP.org/journal/jssm)
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization:
A Case Study in Catering Services
Jue CHEN1, Yunhong HAO2
1The tourism school, Zhejiang Gongshang University, Hangzhou, China; 2School of Business Administration, Zhejiang Gongshang
University, Hangzhou, China.
Email: chenjue8@yahoo.com
Received April 17, 2009; revised June 19, 2009; accepted July 28, 2009.
The paper examines the key issues on system decoupling in service operations of mass customization by conducting a
case study in catering services. It firstly justifies the effectiveness of applying concept of mass custom izatio n into service
system decoupling to deal with the operation dilemma and then reveals the nature of decoupling decisions for mass
customization purpose after discussions on the importance of modularization and the role of technologies including IT
in the decoupling process. Based on these analyses, a Judgment-Matrix-based model on how to make the decoupling
decisions in balancing the multiple operation objectives is then proposed and further research directions are finally
Keywords: Mass Customization, System Decoupling, Customer Contact, Modularization
1. Introduction
System decoupling is an effective approach to cope with
the influences caused by customer contact by dividing the
service system into two components: back-stage and
front-stage. However the relevant researches often take a
dichotomous perspective, assuming that the objectives of
service operations focus on either efficiency (costs and
related issues) or services (customization and respon-
siveness). Mass customization (MC) has been regarded as
an innovative way of doing business by putting together
these seemly contradictory operation objectives and
hence one of the most advanced operation model in 21st
century. The paper intends to discuss the system decoup-
ling issue in the context of service mass customization
which requires a comprehensive consideration of the var-
ious operation objectives rather than dichotomous think-
ing. This in addition will also lead to an extended appli-
cation of manufactory-originated MC theory into the ser-
vice sector.
The remainder of this paper is structured as follows.
To begin with, we review current literatures addressing
both service system decoupling and MC, which leads to
the suggestion of research questions. Then the proposi-
tions of basic consideration on system decoupling for
mass customization and a relevant model for decoupling
decision-making are presented. Next, we conduct a case
study in a restaurant, based on which implications are
drawn for justification of the previous propositions. Fi-
nally, the paper ends with conclusions and suggestions
for further research.
2. Literature Review and Research
2.1 Customer Contact and Service System Design
One of the most distinct features for services (services in
this paper refer to general “business services” in “real
world” rather than the services in virtual world such as
web or software services) is customer contact, which
means that customer should be physically present in the
service delivery system [1]. The customer contact pro-
vides a source of complexity that is not generally found
in manufacturing operations [2]. Contacts with the cus-
tomers and their involvement in the service delivery
process affect the effectiveness and efficiency of services
operations. Customer contact is a double-edge sword to
the service system, bringing up both risks and opportuni-
ties. It on one hand introduces uncertainties and variation
in the service delivery system and makes demands on the
design of facilities, staff and technology in the production
system [3]. On the other hand, customer contact provides
valuable opportunities for responding to a customer’s
needs and cross-selling other products [4] and involving
customer self-services which would help increasing effi-
ciency for the organization [5].
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services
2.2 Service System Decoupling
2.2.1 Decoupling for Efficiency
To deal with the influences caused by customer contact
some researchers introduced decoupling approach break-
ing the service system into its component back and
front-office stages. According to the customer contact
approach proposed by Chase and Tansik [1,6,7], cus-
tomer contact activities should be decoupled from
non-contact activities to do justice to their different de-
sign requirements and maximize the efficiency of the
service delivery system. Consequently, service organiza-
tions consist of a front stage and a back stage. In the back
office customer contact is passive or nonexistent, service
processes may be designed with manufacturing-like prin-
ciples in mind [6]. The process may take advantage of
standardization and automation to enhance the efficiency
and effectiveness of operations. While in the front stage
customer contact is high and active, it brings about un-
avoidable inefficiencies, and the human relation skills
become a dominant factor in designing the process [6].
Study [8] adds that moving some of the back-stage func-
tions from developed areas (or even countries) to under-
developed regions may increase greatly efficiency be-
cause of the reduction in labor costs and taxation.
2.2.2 Dec oupling for Speed, Q ua lity an d S ales
However, back-stage tasks need not only be viewed as
tasks where efficiency is the sole purpose. Research [9]
and [10] propose using the back office to provide supe-
rior results in non-cost strategies by linking the back of-
fice to the same marketing directives that the front office
is organized around. This represents a change in focus
from managing for cost containment and transaction
management to managing for revenue enhancement and
customer loyalty by aligning the back office for speed or
high quality (eg. flexibility, customization and similar
features of services).
Chase and Hayes realize the limitation of previous
study that they overlooked the fact that there are positive
benefits to both the customer and the organization by
having the customer contact [4]. Afterwards Chase and
Aquilano propose a matrix for discovering the tradeoff
between sales opportunities and efficiency in service
system design. More back stage decoupled from the front
stage means more system efficiency but less sales oppor-
tunities [11].
Metters and Vargas hold that in several situations cou-
pling front office and back office jobs can be a viable
strategy and both coupled and decoupled system de-
signs can support efficiency and high-quality service
strategies [12].
2.2.3 Summery on the Decoupling Approach
Based on the literature reviewed above we could summa-
rize the tradeoffs (or dilemma) involved between contact
benefits of the front-stage operations and the potential
efficiency of the limited or no contact back-stage opera-
tions. In another word, the low decoupling (focusing on
front-stage) or high decoupling (focusing on back-stage)
in service system brings different advantages for service
operations as summarized in Table 1. The decoupling
approach should reduce costs and increase productivity,
but these advantages may be off-set by losses in the key
competitive strategies of sales opportunities and service
quality (delivery speed, flexibility and customization).
The method of system decoupling is in essence trying to
alleviate this operational dilemma but can not provide a
complete solution.
2.3 Mass Customization and Enablers
MC refers to the ability of production of customized
goods and services on a mass basis and has recently
aroused more and more academic concern. The visionary
concept of MC was first coined by Stan Davis [13] in
Future Perfect. And the concept of MC was first fully
expound by Pine [14] who implied a view of MC as in
some sense a historically inevitable successor to mass
production, the principal in which to complete in the fu-
ture. The MC is essentially an oxymoron since it puts
together seemingly contradictory notions --- the produc-
tion and the distribution of customized goods and ser-
vices on a mass basis. In anther word, the requirements of
Table 1. Advantages form focusing on front-stage and back-stage
Advantages form focusing on front-stage
(lowly decoupled system)
Advantages from focusing on back-stage
(Highly decoupled system)
1. Improving service delivery (including flexibility, cus-
tomization, speed and responsiveness)
2. Increasing sale opportunities (cross selling)
3. Improving efficiency by involving customer participa-
1. Improving efficiency by adopting industrial principles
2. Reducing costs on labor and taxation by favorably
locating the back-stage
3. Developing expertise for the staff and thus improving
service quality and speed
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services257
MC reside with three aspects: quick responsiveness, cus-
tomization and economy of scale (mass efficiency) [15].
To meet these operational objectives simultaneously,
three major technical challenges in mass customization
system are identified, namely maximizing reusability,
fast production responding to customers’ needs and inte-
grated product life-cycle [15].
To cope with the operation dilemma and overcome the
challenges in achieving MC, the following enablers have
been mentioned in literature: modular design in product
and process [16]; postponement and supply chain man-
agement [17]; efficient information system [18]. Among
them the modularization is regarded as the most funda-
mental approach to reach the goal of MC. Both [14] and
[16] held that modular design in product and process
could facilitate MC since it helped to achieve both scale
and scope economy required by MC.
2.4 Research Questions
As discussed above the system decoupling has become a
vital decision in service system design and an important
approach (strategy) to cope with both the benefits and
risks caused by customer contact in service delivery.
However researches in this domain often take a dichoto-
mous perspective, assuming that service organizations
focus on either efficiency or cross-selling, either low
costs or high-quality services [19]. This could not meet
the requirements of MC in which companies perform
well at multiple operation criteria (eg, cost efficiency and
good services) simultaneously and provide complete so-
lutions to operation dilemma. Then the questions could
be raised if we apply the concept of MC into the service
system decoupling:
Is it effective to apply MC concept into service sys-
tem decoupling?
What is the nature of system decoupling if the con-
cept of MC is integrated in?
How to strike a balance in between the multiple op-
eration objectives required by MC when making a de-
coupling decision for service system?
3. System Decoupling for Service Mass
Customization: Conceptual Propositions
3.1 The Nature of System Decoupling for Mass
System decoupling serves as an important decision in
service system design to cope with both the benefits and
uncertainties caused by customer contact and an approach
to alleviate to some extent the contradiction between ef-
ficiency and service provision (including customization).
However it could not provide the complete solution to
this operation dilemma. The concept of MC provides a
key to solve the problem. Most of the literatures as men-
tioned previously agreed that modularization would be
the fundamental solution to MC. Therefore system de-
coupling for MC purpose should involve modularization
in service system and make decoupling decisions based
on it. Modularization is the use of modules to facilitate
assembly and configuration of finished products [20]. It
can be used to develop complex products or services us-
ing similar component which may lead to high efficiency.
Therefore in the condition of modularization the service
system decoupling issue is in nature to determine the
allocation of service modules to back or front stage rather
than a geographical or physical separation of the system.
3.2 Decoupling Decisions in Service Mass
As mentioned above the service functions to be provided
in service MC system should be rationalized into service
modules. Thus the decoupling decisions in service MC
system can be converted into the front or back stage deci-
sions for each service module. Here we propose a
two-step method for these decisions.
Firstly the decoupling decisions should be made for
each service module according to the extent of customer
contact since the latter is the decisive factor for the deci-
sions as discussed previously. The decoupling decisions
for high contact service modules (modules can not be
provided without customer contact) are quite simple since
they “have to” be arranged in front-stage while the mid-
dle and low contact service modules (modules can be
provided without customer contact) can be located either
in front or back office. The decoupling decisions there-
fore in essence should only be made for these modules
with middle and low customer contact.
Secondly there are also exceptions in high contact
modules whose degree of customer contact could be
changed by introducing technologies since the nature of
customer contact is changing nowadays [21] due to the
developments in technology including IT. Those modules
together with the middle and low contact modules are
here named as “free modules”, meaning that they are
“non-high-contact” and hence can be allocated to either
front office or back office. The “free modules” are left for
a further comprehensive decoupling decision-making as
discussed in the following section.
3.3 The Model of Comprehensive Decoupling
Decision for “Free Modules”
3.3.1 The Model and Explanation
Here we propose a basic model demonstrating the com-
prehensive consideration for decoupling decisions of the
“free modules” and method to conduct these decisions.
The model is based on the understanding that decoupling
decisions need comparative evaluation of the benefits
obtained from allocating service module to front-stage
and back-stage respectively, which are summarized in
Table 1. The model is shown as Formula 1 below.
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services
and ,
In Formula 1, S refers to the final result of the decoup-
ling decision for a “free module”. If it is greater than 1,
the service module should be allocated to the front stage
and to the back stage if it is less than 1.
denotes the total benefit (or grade) that can ob-
tain from allocating the module to front stage; denotes
the benefit (or grade) in each specific aspect that can ob-
tain from allocating the module to front stage, as demon-
strated in Table 2 which is based on the analysis in Table
1. F1, for example, means the benefit that can get from
improving service delivery by putting the module in
denotes the weights associated with the
benefit in each specific aspect.
Similarly, j
denotes the total benefit (or grade)
that can obtain from allocating the module in back stage;
denotes the benefit (or grade) in each specific aspect
that can obtain from putting the module in front stage,
also explained in Table 2.
denotes the weights as-
sociated with the benefit in each specific aspect.
Managers and experts’ evaluation may help to get the
values of and . The values can be estimation of the
direct economic benefits, or subjective grading based on
their experiences and knowledge. Therefore the key of
the decoupling decision-making in Formula 1 is the as-
sessment of weight values associated with the benefit in
each specific aspect, namely the value of
and i
We can obtain them by calculating the relative impor-
tance with Judgment Matrix as described in the following
3.3.2 The Judgment Matrix
We build two Judgment Matrixes respectively by using
two groups of judgment objects with three each. These
judgment objects come from the benefit in each specific
aspect that can obtain from allocating the module to front
or back stage, namely the F1, F2, F3 and B1, B2, B3 as ex-
plained in Table 2.
In the judgment matrix F=[fij], fij denotes the relative
importance for Fi versus Fj ,and i, j=1,2,3. Similarly in
judgment matrix B=[bij], bij denotes the relative impor-
tance of Bi over Bj, and i, j=1,2,3. The judgment matrix is
symmetrical and consistent, that is: fik·fkj=fij .
It is therefore obvious that the greater the value is, the
more important the factor i is. A judgment scale with five
properties can be applied: 1 to 5 respectively denotes that
factor i and j are the same important, more important,
important, very important and extremely important. We
also need to do single-sort of hierarchy in the factor val-
ues and consistency test.
3.3.3 Co nsistency Test
The indicators for consistency test is
max n
C.I. n1
ij j
i1 i1
(F )
 
and (F
)i denotes the i factor of vector
th F
Then we sort for the corresponding indicator named
R.I., and calculate the ratio of consistency:
by which to determine whether it is consistent.
3.3.4 Cal c u lation o n the Weight s of F actors
We calculate it by means of the Root Square Method,
formulas are as follow:
Table 2. Indications of and
F (Benefits for modules being allocated in front-stage) j
B (Benefits for modules being allocated in back-stage)
F1 Improving service delivery (including flexibility, cus-
tomization, speed and responsiveness) B1 Improving efficiency by adopting industrial (rationale)
F2 Increasing sale opportunities (cross selling) B2 Reducing costs on labor and taxation by favorably locat-
ing the back-stage
F3 Improving efficiency by involving customer participa-
tions B3 Developing expertise for the staff by decoupling and thus
improve service quality and speed
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services259
Mass customization
(the sample restaurant)
Volume High
Variety High
Traditional à la cart
Fast food restaurants
Figure 1. Volume-variety matrix for process type
Kitchen staffs
Bus controller
Figure 2. The service process mapping
Weight is:
() f
Relative weight is: 0i
The relative weight 0
is just the percentage of
weighted average, namely the Fi
or Bi
we want to
obtain. Then with the values of and we can cal-
culate the final value of S in Formula 1, thus completing
the decision-making of front or back stage for the module.
4. The Case and the Problem Analysis
4.1 The Sample Organization and Problems
The research sample was a private à la càrt restaurant
located in eastern China. It had 800 dinning capacity and
could provide around 300 dish items according to its
menu. However the restaurants had been suffering reve-
nue decline since the enlargement of its operation scale
and received plenty of complaints showing customers’
dissatisfactions. As the members of Consultancy Services
we were invited to diagnose the problems and propose
possible improvement measures. Based on a statistic
analysis we found that the major problems should be put
priority on the low speed and inefficiency and inade-
quacy of service delivery such as too long and unfair
waiting time, service staffs “absence” from customers,
slow response to customer’s additional order or special
requirements, etc. In addition, the complaints come
mostly from the “walk in” customers who had experi-
enced the à la cart services.
4.2 Identification of Process Type and Service
Process Mapping
We began with the identification of the operation type of
the restaurant based on volume-variety analysis, giving
us a general understanding of the nature of the business.
There existed obvious differences in between the sample
restaurant and traditional à la càrt restaurants and fast
food restaurants. The traditional à la càrt restaurant pro-
vided wide rang of customized food and services but in
very small volume while the fast food restaurant pro-
duced a large volume of dishes within very limited vari-
ety. Whereas the sample restaurant could provide wide
variety of food and services on a relatively mass basis, it
therefore should be positioned in the mass customization
area in the volume-variety matrix as shown in Figure 1.
The à la cart service process of the restaurant with a
clear decoupling of the front-stage and back-stage could
be described in Figure 2. The à la cart services were pro-
vided through a paper-based information flow. There
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services
were two sorts of order sheets for waitresses to keep
down customers’ orders. One was the order sheet for
dishes, the other was for drinks. After having taken cus-
tomers’ orders, the waitresses would send 3 copies of the
order sheets for dishes respectively to kitchen staffs and
bus controller and cashiers, and send 2 copies of the sheet
for drinks to bartenders and cashiers. Receiving the order
sheet for dishes, the kitchen staff would cook to orders
and then send the cooked dishes to the bus controllers.
The latter would check the dishes with the order sheets
and then tell busboys to carry them to the corresponding
tables with helps from the waitresses. For the drinks ser-
vices, the bartenders would prepare drinks according to
the order sheets and the waitresses would then fetch and
take the drinks to the corresponding customers. After
meal the customers would go to the check-out counter
and pay the bill through the cashiers’ services. In Figure
1, the dotted line arrows refer to information flows, the
line arrows refer to materials flows and monetary flows.
4.3 Identification of the Fail Points in the Service
4.3.1 The Information Flows and the Service Delivery
The information system in the restaurant remained as the
same as they had been when the operation scale had been
very small. It was a paper-based system and unable to
deal with the greatly enlarged business. Firstly the wait-
resses had to spend 3-5minutes to deliver 3 copies of dish
order sheets and 2 drinks order sheets to 4 partners:
kitchen staffs, bus controller, bartenders and cashiers.
This meant that the dish-cooking process and drinks
preparation had to be postponed at least 3-5minutes,
which seemed not a short period of time to a waiting
customer. Secondly, the paper-based information system
affected negatively the dish production in back-stage ---
the kitchen. The kitchen staffs should determine the pri-
ority of cooking as doing “scheduling” in the manufac-
turing. Otherwise unscheduled production would lead to
not only low efficiency but also unfairness to customers.
However the kitchen staffs who were in charge of the
final scheduling always got “lost” in work because the
paper-based information was not reliable and clear
enough for them to arrange the scheduling when dealing
with so many orders. Thirdly the cashiers had to collect a
lot of copies of the order sheets for each table (customer)
and be prone to make mistakes if too many customers
check out at the same time (unfortunately it is common in
catering services). We could also find similar problem
among bartenders and bus controllers.
4.3.2 The Fail Points Related to System Decoupling
Many decoupling-related fail points could be also found
in both the front-stage and back-stage. Full service cater-
ing meant longer dinning time and hence many customers
would always require re-processing (such as re-heating,
re-shaping and re-flavoring) some already served dishes.
These requirements would be settled by sending the
dishes to the kitchen and “inserting” into the routine
schedule for dish production. But they had been always
delayed if the kitchen had been busy and the schedule
had been too tight. There had been considerably some
re-processing claims from the customers. Pooling these
orders together and processing them in the back-stage—
kitchen seemed very efficient. However this had led to
delayed services and greatly reduced the responsiveness,
causing customers’ dissatisfaction.
Another fail point could be found in the cashier ser-
vices which had been designed as front-stage activities.
Cashiers had been arranged sitting behind the counter
near to the exit of the dinning hall and providing
check-out services in the face of customers who ap-
proached the counter after meal. The cashier had to col-
lect all the order sheets for the customer and figured out
the sum of payment immediately while they had been in
many cases disrupted by the customers’ further inquiry
even some irrelevant questions such as “how about the
weather tomorrow?” In the peak time customers had to in
many cases queue before the cashier counter and mis-
takes in payment frequently occurred.
Drinks preparation and delivery had been inefficiently
arranged, assuming the services as front office activities.
According the service procedure the waitresses would
pass the order sheets for drinks to the bartender who
would prepare the drinks to orders one after another (it
was very time-consuming). Then the waitresses would
carry the prepared drinks to the corresponding table and
serve to customers. This procedure would lead to the
waitresses “absence from the customers” for 5-8 minutes
and most of customers had been unhappy about this pe-
riod of time “without services”.
Cooking to fresh is the requirement for seafood and
hence the seafood should be kept alive before they are
ordered by customers. Most of the customers preferred
ordering the seafood after seeing them alive. The wait-
resses would always lead the customers into the sea-
food-keeping area for ordering. However the area had
been located as a back-stage unit far into the kitchen and
hence the customers’ ordering activities had inevitably
caused some disturbances to the dish production in the
5. System Improvement and Results
5.1 Rationalization of the Service Functions
Under the agreement from the top managements in the
restaurant we started the re-engineering plan with the
rationalization of all the service functions (or units) in the
service system. After a comprehensive analysis of all the
service functions and customer demands and interrela-
tionship in between them, some of the service units were
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services261
split and some were merged to deal with the problems
mentioned above. The drinks-carrying services originally
conducted by waitresses, for example, were taken away
and merged with function of drinks-preparation to form a
new service unit—“drinks service centre”, which aimed
to increase greatly the efficiency in drinks service. An-
other example was the split of the original reservation
unit into two: the “reservation” and the “Planning and
decoration” for enhancement of the growing banqueting
services. Similarly many service functions were rational-
ized based on the utilization of commonality within ser-
vice units and facilitation of service provision. More
shared units were identified after the rationalization and
hence the service functions in the restaurant decreased
from 33 to 25.
5.2. Re-Engineering of the Information System
After a deep consideration the restaurants decided finally
to purchase and set up a computer-based dish-order sys-
tem and re-design the information flow for the service
process. In the new information flow the waitresses
would just input the customers’ orders into their wireless
PDA and press the “confirm” button, the order informa-
tion would then be automatically sent into the terminals
in kitchen, bus controller, bartenders and cashiers. The
back-stage production thus was triggered within seconds
and saved at least 3-5minutes for the order-receiving
process. Furthermore with the accurate and easy-proc-
essing information the relevant staffs (including kitchen
staffs, bartenders, bus controllers and cashiers) could
readily arrange their job efficiently (eg. the computer
could automatically provide schedule for the kitchen
staffs to organize efficient dish production).
5.3 Re-Decoupling the Service System
5.3.1 Switching from Back-Stage to Front-Stage
As mentioned early re-processing the already served
dishes was arranged in the back-stage for high efficiency
but incurred customers’ complaints due to the slow re-
sponsiveness. The restaurant was persuaded to move this
function to front-stage. Some re-heating equipments (e.g.
microwave oven) and cutting appliances (e.g. knives)
were purchased and placed in the dinning hall, and attrac-
tive instruction brochures of simple cooking methods in
microwave oven and some seasoning materials were put
in the visible place of the dining hall. Thus the re-heating
and shaping requirements by customers could be under-
taken right in the front stage with helps from the wait-
resses without bringing disturbance to in-process produc-
tion in the kitchen by “inserting” the these orders into the
already rigid schedule. These measures also encouraged
customers’ self-services and alleviated production pres-
sure in the kitchen so as to improve the service efficiency
while maintaining a quick responsiveness to customers’
special needs.
Other functions in back-stage were also reviewed and
some of them were re-deployed to the front-offices for a
comprehensive and holistic consideration. Seafood-
keeping area, for an instance, was decoupled into two
parts. One was the storage area for seafood-keeping; the
other was the display part for customer to make orders.
The display part was removed from the kitchen to the
front-stage, thus minimizing the disturbance caused by
customers to the back-stage production.
5.3.2 Switching from Front-Stage to Back-Stage
The cashier services were re-designed as a back-stage
function rather than front-stage activities as it previously
had been. Thus customers needed not go to the cashier
counter to pay the bill themselves after dining. Rather
they could just inform the waitresses and the latter would
help them to conduct the payment activities. With the
help of computer-based order system, the cashiers could
readily process the bills. When the waitresses come to
inform a payment, they could finish processing the bill
within seconds since the bills could be pre-processed in
the computer before the final payment, and very impor-
tantly, they could do the job without contacting the cus-
tomers who might bring disturbance, which also elimi-
nated the queue before the cashier counter.
The services for drinks preparation and delivery were
also switched from a front office function to a back-stage
one. Equipped with the computer terminal receiving
drinks orders from the PDA held by the waitresses, the
bartenders could efficiently arrange the drink preparation
just like a store-keeper. To facilitate service delivery the
dining hall was divided into several dining areas. The
bartenders just put into a cart all the drinks needed in all
the order sheets within a specific dinning area. Then the
bar assistants would push the carts to corresponding din-
ning areas and deliver the drinks to the waitresses along
the route just as the postmen deliver their mails. The
back-stage-style services of drinks preparation and deliv-
ery could shorten the lead time greatly and provide more
support for the front-line staff since the waitresses needed
not fetch the drinks themselves and would not be “ab-
sent” from the customer, thus service quality could be
However one reform was not very successful. The res-
taurant had a dish display area where samples of some
master piece of dishes (or dishes in promotion) were dis-
played for order. The managements of the restaurant held
that it had taken up too much space in the front-stage.
After the installation of the computer system they trans-
formed it into dinning place and provided customers as a
substitution with the picture-based menu and a big-screen
projector introducing new dishes. However this seemed
not very effective and more customers preferred ordering
by seeing the “real” sample dishes rather than the paper
or electronic image.
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Kitchen staffs
Cashiers Bus controller
Customers Waitresses
Figure 3. The improved decoupling system
Table 3. Judgment matrix for being in front stage and the calculation of its weight
F1 F
2 F
3 γi γi0 λi
F1 1 4 4 2.52 0.661 3.054
F2 1/4 1 2 0.794 0.208 3.053
F3 1/4 1/2 1 0.500 0.131 3.054
R.I. =0.52
Judgment matrix
Table 4. Judgment matrix for being in front stage and the calculation of its weight
B1 B
2 B
3 γi γi0 λi
B1 1 5 4 2.714 0.687 3.095
B2 1/5 1 2 0.737 0.186 3.093
B3 1/4 1/2 1 0.5 0.127 3.094
R.I.= 0.52
Judgment matrix
tween the three benefits being put in front stage and then
conducted the following calculation and consistency test
(the normalizing result indicated that this matrix met the
requirements and was consistent). The relevant data and
the calculation results are shown in Table 3. Similarly,
we obtained Table 4 by building and calculating the
Judgment Matrix for putting the module in back stage.
The improved decoupling service system is shown in
Figure 3 ( Referring to the computer terminals). Most
of the measures took effective finally and the manage-
ments of the restaurant were satisfied with our efforts
with the regain of revenue and customer satisfaction.
5.4 Justification of the Judgment Matrix
Proposed From these two tables we got the values fori
, respectively 0.661, 0.208, 0.131 and 0.687, 0.186,
The decoupling decision for cashier services is taken as
an example to illustrate the application of the model pro-
posed previously. The cashier service module belonged
to “free modules” without high customer contact, and
hence could utilize Formula 1 to make decoupling deci-
sion. i
and i
were the focuses of the calculation.
Based on Table 2 summarizing the possible benefits
gained from putting this module in front or back stage,
we take an analysis of the importance of these benefits
and give weight to each.
With the helps from the managers and experts, we got
the values of (7,7,3) and (7,3,9). Thus we could
finally figure out:
=6.476 and 3
By using Formula 1 we got S less than 1. Therefore the
cashier service module should be put in back stage ac-
cording to proposed model, which coincided with the
actual decoupling decision.
We began with building the Judgment Matrixes. We
got the first matrix by comparing the importance in be-
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services263
6. Findings and Discussions
6.1 The Effectiveness of Applying Mc Concepts
into Service System Decoupling
System decoupling is regarded as an effective way to deal
with the influences caused by customer contact according
to previous literatures. But these researches have been
based on a dichotomous assumption that service organi-
zations focus on either low costs or high services. The
case put the MC concepts and methods into the decoup-
ling of catering service system and tested the effective-
ness of those methods in achieving multiple business
objectives simultaneously. These include modularization
of service system, introduction of technologies and com-
prehensive consideration on decoupling decisions. These
issues and their effectiveness could be justified by most
of the successful re-decoupling measures adopted by the
sample restaurant.
6.2 Modularization as a Basis for System
Decoupling in Mc
Modularization is one of the most effective enablers to
facilitate mass customization and the premise for system
decoupling in mass customization. The case proved this
viewpoint in the rationalization of service functions by
splitting or merging them. The rationalization in the res-
taurant was in essence a process of modularization since
it had been conducted by utilizing commonalities within
service functions and facilitating service provision. The
“drinks-service centre”, for example, was set up for effi-
cient service delivery by utilizing the commonality
among service functions which required cooperation
from the drinks service function. The rationalization fi-
nally led to identification of more shared service units
and decrease of service units over all, which helped a lot
to achieve economy of scale while maintaining service
quality, reflecting the features of modularization. Addi-
tionally the following-up decoupling measures was then
based on the service function rationalization or modu-
larization, which also explained the nature of decoupling
for MC proposed previously.
6.3 Balance-Striking among the Multiple
Objectives in Decoupling Decision for Mc
Literatures tell that tradeoffs involved between contact
benefits of the front-office operations and the potential
efficiency of the back-office with limited or no customer
contact. In decoupling process for MC, balance thinking
among different operation objectives should be adopted
to deal with the tradeoffs involved in decoupling decision
for each service module. Namely the system efficiency,
service customization, responsiveness and relevant issues
should be taken into consideration simultaneously for
allocating each individual service module to front or back
office. The switching of re-processing job from the
kitchen to front-stage, for example, was based on the
consideration that the efficiency brought by putting the
function in back-stage could not offset the customers’
dissatisfaction due to the slow responsiveness (service
speed). The re-design of the cashier services into a
back-stage function also justified this viewpoint since the
benefits from being a front-stage activity could not match
the increased efficiency being in the back-stage. This also
showed that the operation tradeoffs involved in the de-
coupling process could be evaluated by carefully com-
paring the relative importance of the benefits gained from
being in front stage and back stage respectively as dem-
onstrated in the model based on Judgment Matrix.
6.4 Technologies and System Decoupling in Mc
The vital role of information technology in mass cus-
tomization operations could be justified by the
re-engineering of the information system in the case. Be-
sides, the case address more issues of technologies re-
lated to decoupling. The most important criterion for de-
coupling decision is whether the service function needs
customer contact or not. It seems that the nature of the
service decide whether customer contact is required.
However this has been changed by the development of
technologies especially IT which could remove the cus-
tomer from the service system without affecting service
quality, which gives us more flexibility to utilize the de-
coupling approach. We could find that most of the meas-
ures for system re-decoupling in the case linked closely
to the use of technologies. The introducing of microwave
oven and related equipments enabled the re-processing
function moving from back stage to the front stage. The
big-screen projector took customers out of the display
area and thus saved much space for front stage use. The
computer-based order system played very vital role in
transferring the cashier and drink preparation services
from front stage to back stage. However the use of tech-
nologies is not always effective and they can not substi-
tute the customer contact in all cases. The unsuccessful
reform in display area of sample dishes in the case justi-
fied the point.
7. Conclusions
The paper discusses the system decoupling issues in mass
customization operation in the context of restaurant ser-
vices. It justifies that integration of the concept and
methods of MC into system decoupling is effective to
deal with the operation dilemma and that modularization
plays vital role in the decoupling decision-making proc-
ess. It also explains that the nature of decoupling decision
for MC purpose is the allocation of the service modules
to front or back stage rater than the physical or geo-
graphical separation of service system. Furthermore a
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Service System Decoupling for Mass Customization: A Case Study in Catering Services
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Judgment-Matrix-based model is proposed on how to
make decoupling decisions for mass customization by
balancing the multiple operation objectives. Moreover the
technologies, especially the IT, are proved to be very
important for system decoupling in delivering mass cus-
tomized services. However the proposed model and im-
plications in the paper need further test in various service
contexts for better theoretical generalities, giving the
limitations of the case study methodology used in this
[1] R. B. Chase, “The Customer Contact approach to services:
Theoretical based and practical extensions,” Operation
Research 29, pp. 698–705, 1981.
[2] W. Nie and D. L. Kellogg, “How professors of operations
management view service operations?” Production and
Operations Management 8, pp. 339–355, 1999.
[3] M. H. Safizadeh, J. M. Field, and L. P. Ritzman, “An
empirical analysis of financial services processes with a
front-office or back-office orientation,” Journal of Opera-
tions Management 21, pp. 557–576, 2003.
[4] R. B. Chase and R. H. Hayes, “Beefing up operations in
service firms,” Sloan Management Review 33, pp. 15–26,
[5] K. D. Hoffman and J. E. G. Bateson, “Essentials of ser-
vice marketing,” The Dryden Press, Orlando, 1997.
[6] R. B. Chase, “Where does the customer fit in a service
operation?” Harvard Business Review 56, pp. 137–142,
[7] R. B. Chase and D. A. Tansik, “The customer contact
model for organization design,” Management Science 29,
pp. 1037–1050, 1983.
[8] P. Breathnach, “Globalization, information technology
and the emergence of Nich transnational cities: The
growth of the call centre sector in Dublin,” Geoforum 324,
pp. 477–485, 2000.
[9] J. L. Heskett, “Lessons in the service sector,” Harvard
Business Review 65, pp. 118–126, 1987.
[10] J. L. Heskett, W. E. Sasser, and L. A. Schlesinger, “The
service profit chain,” The Free Press, New York, 1997.
[11] R. B. Chase and N. J. Aquilano, “A matrix for linking
marketing and production variables in service system de-
sign,” In: Richard, D. (eds), Production and Operations
Management, 6th edition Irwin, Homewood, 1992.
[12] R. D. Metters and V. Vargas, “A typology of de-coupling
strategies in mixed services,” Journal of Operations Man-
agement 18, pp. 663–682, 2000.
[13] S. M. Davis, “Future perfect,” Addison-Wesley, New
York, 1987.
[14] B. J. Pine II, B. Victor, and A. C. Boynton, “Making mass
customization work,” Harvard Business Review 71, pp.
108–119, 1993.
[15] M. M. Tseng and J. Jiao, “Design for mass customiza-
tion,” CIRP Annals 45, pp. 153–156, 1996.
[16] R. Duray, P. Ward, G. Milligan, and W. Berry, “Ap-
proaches to mass customization: configurations and em-
pirical validation,” Journal of Operation Management 18,
pp. 605–625, 2000.
[17] G. D. Silveira, D. Borenstein, and F. S. Fogliatto, “Mass
customization: Literature review and research directions,”
International Journal of Production Economics 72, pp.
1–13, 2001.
[18] K. Turowski, “A virtual electronic call centre solution for
mass customization,” Proceedings of the 32nd Annual
Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences,
Vol. 8, pp. 8027–8036, 1999.
[19] L. G. Zomerdijk and J. D. Vries, “Structuring front office
and back office work in service delivery systems,” Inter-
national Journal of Operations & Production Management
27, pp. 108–131, 2007.
[20] E. D. Arnheiter and H. Harren, “A typology to unleash the
potential of modularity,” Journal of Manufacturing Tech-
nology Management 16, pp. 699–711, 2005.
[21] C. A. Voss, “Rethinking paradigms of service: Service in
a virtual environment,” International Journal of Opera-
tions & Production Management 23, pp. 88–104, 2003.