Monday, 1 June 2009

Success story of Mumbai Dabbawalas

A dabbawala, also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah is a person in the Indian city of Mumbai who is employed in a unique service industry whose primary business is collecting the freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of the office workers (mostly in the suburbs), delivering it to their respective workplaces and returning back the empty boxes by using various modes of transport. "Tiffin" is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch, and sometimes for the box it is carried in. For this reason, the dabbawalas are sometimes called Tiffin Wallahs.

More than 175,000 or 200,000 lunch boxes get moved every day by an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries, statistically equivalent to a Six Sigma (99.9999) rating. The dabbawallahs deliver tiffins at their destinations travelling by trains, bicycles or carts and do not seek help of modern gadgets in their business. The average turnover of the dabbawallah industry is to tune of Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million) per annum.

The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his visit to India, visited them (he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility).

It is not only former railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav who caught the attention of Harvard Management School for turning around Indian Railways. Now dabbawallahs, known for their food-supply network across Mumbai, are being asked to impart lessons on management and business skills to the corporate world. One such presentation by dabbawallahs on time management, customer satisfaction, loyalty, error-free methods and other skills was given to top industry professionals in Mumbai recently. Professionals from various companies, including ICICI Bank, IDBI Capital Market Services, Forbes & Co Paramount Health Services Ltd; Dynamic Logistics, Chowgule Ports & Infrastructure, Blue Dart Express and Fortress Financial Services, participated in the presentation.

This service was originated in 1880. In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, started a lunch delivery service with about 100 men. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionize the dabbawallas. Later a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Carriers Association. The present President of the association is Raghunath Medge. Nowadays, the service often includes cooking of foods in addition to the delivery.

What should we learn from this unique, simple and highly efficient 120-year-old logistics system?

The method they adopt is simple and easy. For them, customer satisfaction matters a lot and they are here to deliver services to them.

The success of the system depends on teamwork and time management and is at par with the work of a modern manager. A straightforward colour coding system acts as an ID system for the destination and recipient. Moreover, there are three stratas of management. It is necessary for each dabbawala to contribute a minimum capital in the form of two bicycles and a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white trademark Gandhi topi (cap). The return on capital is guaranteed by monthly division of the earnings of each unit. The service is unremitting even on the days of adverse weather conditions, such as Mumbai`s characteristic monsoons. At times, people communicate between home and work by conveying messages through the boxes. This process was widespread before the arrival of instant telecommunications. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are known to the customers personally, so that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease.

The Dabbawallahs do not go in for high-tech equipments but adopt easy and simple modes to perform their job. The dabbawalas have started to adopt contemporary information technology. They now permit booking for delivery through SMS (Short Messaging Service). A web site,, has also been launched to allow on- line booking, in order to keep up with the modern times. There is also an on-line poll to ensure customer feedback.

Meetings are held in the office on the 15th of every month at the Dadar. During these meetings, particular emphasis is paid to customer service. If a tiffin is lost or stolen, an investigation is promptly instituted. Customers are allowed to deduct costs from any dabbawala found guilty of such a charge.

Logistics is the new mantra for building competitive advantage, the world over. Mumbai's dabbawalas developed their home-grown version long before the term was coined.

Their attitude of competitive collaboration is equally unusual, particularly in India. The operation process is competitive at the customers' end but united at the delivery end, ensuring their survival since a century and more. Is their business model worth replicating in the digital age is the big question.

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