How much do you know about the Dabbawalas of Mumbai?

They have had a documentary produced by BBC and have been featured by, among others, The NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, Harvard Business Review (case study), IBS (case study), The Economist and Seth Godin to name a few, but how much do you really know about the Dabbawalas of Bombay?

I am merely one more of many fascinated onlookers and this is my attempt to bring together a bit of the best that I’ve learnt about the amazing dabbawalas of Mumbai. I am also one among many bloggers who have written on this topic – without even searching very far, I quickly found about 50+ blog posts that referred to Seth Godin’s blog about dabbawalas!  What’s one more? Perhaps it will entice you to go to the source and read some more….So, here goes:

Dabbawala of Mumbai

First some facts –

A dabbawala in Mumbai carries freshly packed lunch in a box (dabba) from a person’s homes to his office.

5000 dabbawalas carry 200,000 lunch boxes every day (400,000 transactions: pick-up + drop-off), growing from a service that originated in 1890 with 100 dabbawalas.

The charge for this service is approximately $6.00. Per month!

Their error rate is an amazing 1 in 16 million transactions for which they have been recognized with Six Sigma performance (99.999999% error-free).

Their modes of transportation during their work day includes bicycles, push carts, and public trains.

They have a hub and spoke system (think Fedex) – a collecting dabbawala, and a local (delivering) dabbawala.  They have a simple color coded system that determines the destination of each lunch box.

Their use of modern technology is almost non-existent although lately they have been using SMS for convenience.

The service is virtually uninterrupted even in severe monsoon weather.

When you consider that Mumbai is one of the most densely populated and large cities in the world with a complex transportation network and huge traffic flows, you can easily see why this service would be needed and in much demand. No one wants to brave the traffic or weather at lunch!

The alternative is a fresh, hot home cooked meal brought to your office at lunch time…yummy!  So, yes, the demand for this service is easy to visualize.  But what is more amazing is that this same over-crowded, overflowing city of Mumbai is also the hub of such well-coordinated activity and flawless delivery. In fact, “amazing” as a descriptor just doesn’t cut it!

Seth Godin says –

The reported error rate is one in six million.

How is this possible? How do you create and run a service with thousand of employees, no technology and a poorly-educated workforce and have better than six sigma quality?

Simple: the dabbawallas know their customers. If they rotated the people around, it would never work. There’s trust, and along with the trust is responsibility. By creating a flat organization and building relationships, the system even survives monsoon season.

According to The NY Times

The precision and efficiency of the dabbawallas have been likened to the Internet, where packets identified by unique markers are ferried to their destination by means of a complex network.

The secret of the system is in the colored codes painted on the side of the boxes, which tell the dabbawallas where the food comes from and which railway stations it must pass through on its way to a specific office in a specific building in downtown Mumbai.

The Economist writes – 

… the 5,000-strong dabbawala collective has built up an extraordinary reputation for the speed and accuracy of its deliveries. Word of their legendary efficiency and almost flawless logistics is now spreading through the rarefied world of management consulting. Impressed by the dabbawalas’ “six-sigma” certified error rate—reportedly on the order of one mistake per 6m deliveries—management gurus and bosses are queuing up to find out how they do it.

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As I said, this is fascinating stuff!  If you are too busy to check out any of these sources, take less than four minutes to see them in action in this short video or this even better longer one  at 10 minutes. It will be worth your time, I promise!

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Photo: By Joe Zachs from Pune, India (The Bombay Dabawalla) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Posted on July 7, 2011, in Food, india, Mumbai, people, service industry, seth godin and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. While most of the packed meals (Dabbas) originate from homes, Tiffin suppliers also utilise the services of Dabbawalas to deliver meals to their customers. Over 200 Tiffin suppliers are listed in Indiatiffins.com which is a portal for Tiffin services.

  2. The Dabbawalas services have gone bad to worse,

    A General survey & report says that 80% customers are absolutely not satisfied with them.

    The behavior of these dabbawalas are very abusive and enter the office premises in drunk condition.
    They use quiet abusive languages while talking on phone & delivering the tiffins.

    Every month the tiffins are damaged in transit, and the holiday list for these dabbawalas are unexpected and much more than bank holidays of any other corporates in the world.

    Dont know why media and international organisations have not focused on these areas.

    The Objective of every Service providers / organisations / Unions are Customer satisfaction, but this is cornered up.

    Sincere request to the media & other surveyors to interview their customers.

  3. Great to know about dabbawala’s of mumbai. They where also honored by Prince Charles of England for there mangement skills. Nice Information. Thanks for sharing…

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