Article (December-2016)


Mumbai Dabbawalas : An institution built on values & hard work

Sanjeev Himachali

Designation : -   Principal Consultant & Talent Strategist

Organization : -  EclipticHRS

Other Writers : -   Anju Talmale


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This story is about Dabbawalas and corporate lessons we can learn from them.   Let's first understand the basics first :

Mumbai Dabbawalas is a group of over 5,000 individuals, brought together by a common mission of carrying homemade food for over 200,000 customers across 60-70 KMS in Mumbai region. They must not be confused with caters because they don't cook food for clients. They just carry food from one place to another and return empty boxes back. They have a customer base of over 250,000which translates into daily transactions of 500,000 turns. Annual transactions are 156,000,000 (156 million) with an accuracy level of 99.9999% (as per Six Sigma Study Report) and On-Time-Delivery of over 98.5%.

Mumbai Dabbawalas carry homemade food from the houses of customers, deliver it to them in their offices before lunch hour and then carry the empty tiffin boxes and drop at their homes. 

They work in the financial city of India - Mumbai. They provide their services within a diameter of around    60-70 KMS.

Dabbawala Service was started in 1890 by Mahadeo Bhavaji Bachche. In the beginning, it delivered food to a British officer and a Parsi Banker, however, soon it transformed into a flourishing business. Bachche started a lunch delivery service with a hundred men working with him. He informally unionized the Dabbawalas in 1930. In 1956, a charitable trust under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust was registered. Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier's Association is the name under which the commercial arm of the Trust was finally registered in 1968.

A question is often asked, why people in Mumbai cannot carry their lunch boxes? Why do they need someone to carry their tiffins?  In Mumbai, due to heavy traffic, it takes long hours to reach office. If someone needs to travel for 35-40 KMS to reach his office by 8 AM, he must start from his home at least by 6 AM. Longer the distance, earlier he must start. So, if he has to start at 6 AM, his wife or mother must wake-up by 4:30 AM to prepare his breakfast and lunch. Food cooked at 5 AM will be eaten by the person during lunch break at 1 PM. The cold food doesn't taste good nor is it healthy for the body. Moreover, it's strenuous to travel by overcrowded local trains with one hand on office bag and other holding lunch box. That's why they use the service of Dabbawala, who pick-up lunchboxes at 9 AM and delivers to the customers by 12:30 PM. The clients of Dabbawala's are average middle-class people who cannot afford to eat outside food, every day.

These Dabbawalas carry lunchboxes barefoot, in a carter over their head; they use bicycles and local train services. They use a complex coding system to identify each lunchbox. The coding system comprises of colours, numbers, symbols and alphabets. Every resident pickup group is given a code, which is an alphabet or combination of alphabets. Destination station is identified by a symbol. Destination pickup group is given a code, which is numeric. Destination Address is given an Alpha-Numeric code. For resident coding and destination coding, different colours are used.

Each Dabbawala is governed by THREE principles - Work is Worship; Customer is God, and there is no substitute for hard work.

One might argue that carrying tiffin's from one place to another and to return them is quite a simple task, what makes it so distinguished and what's there to learn from it. Well, learning lies in the complexity of the system. To add to the complexity is the education level of these Dabbawalas. Most of them are illiterate, and who cannot even explain the address of their customer to a stranger. They work in many-to-many structure and yet deliver lunchboxes to their customers accurately, on time, consistently, every day, and day after day.

Before I proceed with People Management Lessons that we can learn from them, let me explain the complexity of the system that these Dabbawala's work in and which makes their work so special. Suppose there are FIVE pick-up and delivery railway stations - A, B, C, D and E. All these FIVE stations are connected by a local train. Train covers distance between each station in 10-15 minutes. There are 10 Dabbawalas who manage collection and delivery of tiffin's at each station. Each Dabbawala collects 30-40 lunchboxes and brings them to the station. Each Dabbawala carries tiffin's that needs to be delivered in the region of each of this railway station, viz. A, B, C, D, and E. Let's start from station A. All 10 Dabbawala's picked lunchboxes from their designated areas and brought them to the station A. At station, they will do first level of sorting, and classify lunchboxes into FIVE segments A, B, C, D, and E. Same type of  sorting is done at every station. These lunchboxes are then carried in the luggage compartment of local train. Once the train reaches station B, those lunchboxes that needs to be delivered at station B are pulled down and new lunchboxes are pulled into the luggage compartment and second level of sorting is done before the train reaches next station. The process of sorting and re-sorting continues till the train reaches final destination. Once the train reaches final destination, sorting is done on the basis of delivery address regions. From there onwards, designated Dabbawala carries lunchboxes in carters; take over his head or on bicycle and deliver lunchboxes to concerned customers. After lunchtime, the same process repeats in reverse order and lunchboxes are returned to families of customers. In a day, on an average, each lunchbox passes through the hands of 5-6 Dabbawalas and yet reaches its destination accurately and on time.

Lesson 1. Time Management - Mumbai Dabbawalas are classic example of time-management. While preparing their schedule they take into account every external factor, such as, weather, traffic jams, train delays, etc. So, whether the local train is on time or not, whether it is hot summer or raining, they don't make an excuse, they deliver lunchboxes to their customers on time. Once in a month they conduct "grievance resolution meeting" and this meeting is done after office hours at 6 PM. These Dabbawalas do not let their personal grievances affect their work.

Lesson 2. Self-Discipline - Mumbai Dabbawala's is a classic lot of self-disciplined people. Unlike organized corporate world, they do not have written policies, however, they have few unwritten rules which they follow diligently. If they are sick or want to take a leave off the following day, they inform their team-leader well in advance. Their Team-leader doesn't need to search for them. They wear a white colour cap, uniquely designed for them as their identity. They are not allowed to report to work in a drunken state.

Lesson 3. Visibility - The beauty of the Dabbawala-based system is that all of the Dabbawalas understand exactly what is happening and when - to the minute. If certain deadlines and hand-offs are missed, people don't eat. It's as simple as that. Everyone within the chain understands what he needs to do, where he needs to be positioned and what must be done for the chain to be successful.

Lesson 4. Ownership - Every Dabbawala takes ownership of his work. Sometimes the colour coding on lunchboxes fades away with time. Any Dabbawala, who notices faded colour code, repaints the code without being told to do so. For them faded colour code is not an excuse to deliver the lunchbox at the wrong address. They don't think that any work in the supply-chain doesn't belong to them. They take complete ownership of their work. Hiring is done through the reference of Dabbawala only. It is the duty of referring Dabbawala to make sure that his reference works as per ethics and values of the group. In case the reference fails to deliver as per norms, that Dabbawala gets barred from referring any new reference for rest of his life.

Lesson 5. Approach of Trustworthiness - Dabbawalas do not open lunchboxes to see what is in it. They only pick the lunchboxes from the houses and deliver to customers at a workplace. However, sometimes if a client forgets to carry his mobile or chequebook or glasses, his family members put those things in one the boxes of lunchbox and Dabbawala, without knowing what is in it, delivers it to the customer. Carrying cash in local trains is risky, sometimes; those clients who get their salary in cash put the entire amount in one of the boxes of a lunchbox and get it delivered at home safely.

Lesson 6. Keep the Process Plain and Simple - One of the key lessons any organization can learn from the Dabbawalas is the simplicity with which this system works. The Dabbawalas are intimately aware of what their customers value (food delivered on time, every day). And, just as importantly, they don't try to do anything other than that. They don't overcomplicate things. They don't add extraneous value. They simply understand what their customers want, and they focus 100 percent of their time and energy on meeting that need. As you look at your performance chain, how can you simplify your system? Can you take pieces that are not meeting the single customer need out of the chain? And, do you know what your individual customer need is? That is always a good place to start.

Lesson 7. Customer Focus - In spite of adequate planning, sometimes these Dabbawala's encounter a situation which is beyond their control, such as accident, sudden illness, and emergency at home. In such scenario, the concerned Dabbawala is relieved, and his work is completed by other colleagues. No matter what happens to Dabbawala, his customers get their lunchboxes on time. Accidents, falling sick, emergency at home, etc. are not excuses for them to fail in their work.

Lesson 8.Technology is just a facilitator- In recent times, Dabbawala's have begun to use web technology and SMS services to book orders, however, and they are not overly relied on computers or social media. 

They believe that issues related to accuracy and consistency has more to do with the process, execution, and expectations. Their work has earned them ISO 9001 Certification and Six Sigma Certification, though they never applied for any of it. 

They have several records registered in Guinness Books of Records. Several imminent institutes, such as Harvard Business School, Indian Institutes of Management have studied their models and prepared case studies for their management students. Charles, Prince of Wales and Richard Branson has visited the place of work of these Dabbawalas. In fact, Richard Branson travelled with them to deliver lunchbox to one of his employees in Mumbai.  

It is said that this model of Dabbawalas cannot be replicated elsewhere due to the infrastructure of Mumbai. The ethos and values of the community involved in this business make it difficult to replicate it elsewhere, though not impossible. However, it appears that people working in organized and structured organizations have much to learn from this lot of primarily uneducated people. We can learn from their values, ethics, and principles towards their work.