How do you deliver meals on time in the most crowded city of the world?
This seemingly impossible task is being achieved every day as we speak. Passed on by generations, this service is performed by workers as “Dabbawalas” which means “box person.” Here the word “box” means “tiffin” or a lunch box.
The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, [MTBSA] is an organization of over 5000 Dabbawalas who deliver lunchboxes to offices, schools and other institutions. Dabbawalas are usually seen bustling across the city on bicycle, or trains, or hand drawn carts, carrying huge wooden trays full of lunch boxes. A white shirt and a white “Gandhi” cap (a symbol of peace) is the uniform and the unmistakable brand of the Dabbawala.
The Mumbai Dabbawalas promptly deliver lunch to more than 200,000 people in their offices, schools and other Mumbai locations. How do they do it?
Color coding is the most important component of the Dabbawala delivery system. Lunchboxes are marked with the specific color of a particular destination or area. Each box also has a number indicating the city block, as well as the building name and door number. Similarly colored boxes are arranged together, as they have the same destination. This technique is considered far more effective and simpler than barcoding.
The Dabbawala’s day starts early in the morning around 6 AM, with the collection of the day’s lunch boxes. At around 9 AM they deliver meals to their respective destinations, on time. The work day ends around 4PM. Dabbawalas deliver the lunch boxes on time, irrespective of the weather and traffic conditions. They are paid around $40-$80 a month.
The meals are delivered to the right address more than 99 per cent of time. In 1998, Forbes Global Magazine conducted an analysis of the Dabbawalas and awarded them a Six Sigma rating for maximum efficiency achieved for logistics.
Six Sigma indicates that there are only 3.4 defects per million transactions. The120 year old Dabbawala lunch delivery system has an error rate of just 1 in 16 million transactions. The Mumbai Dabbawalas have surpassed the Six Sigma level, and are considered one of the best manual driven logistics in the world.
The New York Times reported in 2007 that the Dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5-10% a year. BBC made a documentary about the Mumbai Dabbawalas; they have also been featured the BBC News.
The Mumbai Dabbawalas’ operations are so efficient that personalities such as Prince Charles and Richard Branson of Virgin Group have visited Mumbai to observe how this phenomenon works. Leading logistics companies such as FedEx have also come to Mumbai to learn how the Mumbai Dabbawalas are able to function with this much efficiency.
In the words of MTBSA President Raghunath Medge, “We don’t understand Six Sigma. We are a bunch of illiterates. But we do know our prime responsibility – customer satisfaction. And to achieve that, we can put in hard work like no one else.”
Interested in learning more about the Mumbai Dabbawalas? See these links:
The Harvard Business Review has published many articles and cases on the Mumbai Dabbawalas, including “The Dabbawala System: On Time Delivery , Every Time.”
This video about the Mumbai Dabbawalas shows the operations in action:
- Aniruddha Kashi Nataraj
Aniruddha Kashi Nataraj is a student of Christ University enrolled in the dual degree MBA-MS program between Christ University and VCU. Aniruddha has a keen interest in branding, product innovation, new product development, retailing and logistics in the marketing field. He is also currently working as a Graduate Assistant for the Marketing Department in the VCU School of Business.