When Technology Takes a Back Seat

Mumbai is a very densely populated city of millions with huge flows of traffic. Because of this, lengthy commutes to workplaces are common, with many workers traveling by train.Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in a café, many office workers have a cooked meal sent either from their home, or sometimes from a caterer who essentially cooks and delivers the meal in lunch boxes and then have the empty lunch boxes collected and re-sent the same day. This is usually done for a monthly fee. The meal is cooked in the morning and sent in lunch boxes carried by dabbawalas, who have a complex association and hierarchy across the city.

A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas either from a worker’s home or from the dabba makers. The dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a color or symbol.

The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box. The markings include the rail station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to be delivered.

At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.

The Dabbawalas are featured in the “Guinness Book of World Records” and also figure in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”. Even Prince Charles invited them to his wedding owing to the highly positive impression he got on Dabbawalas during his trip to India. He had to make an appointment to meet these people so as to fit into their daily schedule!

“Tiffin” was a nostalgic term used by British for “light food”. However, people call them Dabbawalas as they carry a “Dabba” meaning “box”. Almost 5000 Dabbawalas deliver and collect more than 200,000 lunch boxes very day, across the entire Mumbai.

The most interesting fact is that these people do not use any modern technology, yet they have never failed to deliver the lunch boxes on time – irrespective of weather, riots, floods, etc.  According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 16,000,000 deliveries and the system has registered a Six Sigma performance at 99.999999 rating. This is more than that most businesses strive to achieve. A study conducted by Six Sigma concludes that excellent efficiency and reliability is achieved by the Dabbawalas through competitive collaboration with team members and efficient management of logistics.

The Dabbawalas depend on teamwork and timing to complete their tasks. Once the customer leaves for his/her office, the lunch is packed in a box that is color coded  by the customer’s home-maker. This process should be completed by 9am. Once the lunch box is packed, it is transported using a combination of different transport modes: bicycles, local trains, and walking. The boxes are handed over to other team workers at different junctions. The entire city is divided into several areas, each area having a specific “box exchange point”. A single lunch box changes hands three to four times in its journey to office and back home. The organizational structure of Dabbawalas is also simple. Each employee is a shareholder and an entrepreneur. The organization follows a flat structure of business hierarchy with only three layers for better communication. Other than top level management, the middle layer is the governing body while the bottom layer contains people involved in transportation of lunch boxes. The Dabbawalas are divided into groups of 15 to 25 and each group is supervised by 4 experienced supervisors. These supervisors are familiar with the color coding that is used in the complex logistic process. Their role is to sort the lunch boxes, maintain receipts and payments, acquire new customers, solve disputes, and train junior employees. Management of Dabbawalas does not Rely on Six Sigma Study Material As mentioned earlier, above 85 percent of Dabbawalas’ team did not even study the O level, let alone the Six Sigma study material. They function on strict management principles.

Their main beliefs are: work is worship, customer is God, time is money, and unity is power. They must wear their uniform, must report on time, must respect customers and always carry identification cards. Decisions are made instantly without meetings and conventions. This case offers various lessons on controlling complex processes efficiently with a small error rate. Even in this technology driven world, the Dabbawalas are rendering an excellent service with the help of a brilliant supply chain.

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