Management Lessons From Mumbai Dabbawala - Part 1

Employee Engagement, Employee Relations, Rewards and Recognition

A couple of weeks ago I went to attend an event organized by one of the HR Forums – “HR Enlight”. Dr. Pawan Agrawal, a speaker, author, and educationist, who has done extensive research work on Dabbawala’s, titled as “A Study of Logistics and Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai" was the keynote speaker of the evening. He has delivered over 500 talk sessions across the globe. Well, this story is neither about “HR Enlight” nor about “Dr. Pawan Agarwal”. This story is about Dabbawalas and corporate lessons we can learn from them.   Let’s first understand the basics –

WHO – 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%.

WHAT – Mumbai Dabbawala’s 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. 

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

WHEN – 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.

WHY – A question is often asked, WHY people in Mumbai cannot carry their lunchboxes? Why do they need someone to carry their tiffin’s?  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.

HOW – These Dabbawala’s 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 Dabbawala’s, 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. 

Please share your views.

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