Ideas & Debate

Lessons from Indian lunch deliverymen

Indian dabbawallas or lunch-box deliverymen attend a laughter therapy session to beat stress in Mumbai.  The lunch-box deliverymen criss-cross the city daily delivering home-cooked meals to office workers, business leaders and royalty. AFP
Indian dabbawallas or lunch-box deliverymen attend a laughter therapy session to beat stress in Mumbai. The lunch-box deliverymen criss-cross the city daily delivering home-cooked meals to office workers, business leaders and royalty. AFP 

In the sunset years of the 19th Century, the eating habits of British colonialists who lived and worked in Mumbai gave rise to what is now one of the world’s recognised logistics operations.

Since the British palate was unaccustomed to the spice driven culinary base of the local Indians, they required their lunch to be brought to their workplace straight from home. This initiated the service of dabbawalas started by Mahadeo Havaji Bachche who began a lunch delivery service with about 100 men.

The 120-year-old service evolved over the 20th century to begin providing fresh home cooked hot lunch deliveries for local Indian workers as well as school going children. The Marathi word dabba means a cylindrical tin or aluminium box or Indian style tiffin box while wala is a doer of the previous word. Thus dabbawala means “lunch-box carrier”.

Today, 4,500 dabbawalas collect and deliver 175,000 packages daily within hours with an error rate of less than 0.3 per cent. The food is served hot at the customer’s desk by 12:30pm.

The mostly barefoot delivery men, majority of whom have not gone past Standard Seven, succeed in a complex delivery system via the use of a simple colour coding system on the tiffin box provided by the dabbawalas which identifies the destination and the recipient. Once the tiffin box has been collected from the customer’s home, the dabbawala delivers it expeditiously using a combination of bicycles, trains and his own two feet.

The delivery system relies on diligent teamwork and sense of timing. Tiffin boxes are collected between 7am and 9am and are taken to the nearest railway station. During the course of the travel they are hauled out onto station platforms and sorted for area distribution, so that a single tiffin box could change hands three to four times in the course of its daily journey.

After lunch, the whole process moves into reverse and the tiffin boxes return to their suburban homes by 6pm.

A sense of ownership is deeply ingrained in the dabbawalas as members of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, where each member is required to contribute capital in the form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins and their uniform consisting of white cotton pyjamas (kurtas) and trademark white Gandhi cap.

In what is very similar to a co-operative model, earnings from the service which charges from 150 to 300 rupees (Sh225 to Sh450) a month, are distributed equally to the dabbawalas in each group, which typically consists of 20 members. Thus a dabbawala would earn about 2,000- 4,000 rupees (Sh3,000-Sh6,000) a month while contributing 15 rupees a month to the association for community improvement and loans.

Quite obviously the Tiffin Box Suppliers of Mumbai have received global acclaim for the simplicity of a very complex process which has essentially achieved very high standards of precision for a business driven mainly by primary school education level workers. (In 2002, Forbes Magazine gave it a six sigma standard for reliability)

They have been studied by various business schools including Harvard Business School who undertook a case study on the business model and visited by dignitaries including His Royal Highness Prince Charles, who apparently had to fit into the schedule of the dabbawalas as their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility!

There are a few lessons that can be drawn from the Tiffin Box Suppliers.

First, the organisation has a relatively flat structure with only three layers of management consisting of the governing council (the president, vice president, general secretary, treasurer and nine directors), the mukadams and the dabbawalas. This totally eliminates organisational politics and internal posturing.

Second, the business model proves that technology does not necessarily provide an all-encompassing solution to all businesses. For Paul Goodman, a professor of organisational psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has made a documentary on the dabbawalas, this is one of the critical aspects of their appeal to Western management thinkers. “Most of our modern business education is about analytic models, technology and efficient business practices,” Goodman says.

The dabbawalas, by contrast, focus more on “human and social ingenuity”, he says. The teamwork that would be required to get the entire process moving would be of enormous proportions and therefore it is made simpler by using teams of between 15 to 25 members each. The teams are each supervised by four mukadams who are experienced old timers familiar with the colours and coding used in the logistics.

The mukadams play a critical role in resolving disputes, maintaining records of receipts and payments, acquiring new customers and training junior dabbawalas on handling new customers on their first day. While each group is financially independent, it is entirely dependent on the other teams for deliveries. As a result, the role of the mukadam is fundamental both as a mentor and as a quality controller as they carry years of institutional knowledge in their heads. Consequently, the human side of the business is the cornerstone of its success.

Third, the dabbawalas do not consider themselves employees, nor do they consider the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association as their employer.

The dabbawalas are shareholders and entrepreneurs, albeit all earning the same amount of money every month within their respective teams. This demonstrates the paradox that exists in the socialist nature of this intuitively capitalist venture. Ownership inherently drives behaviour.

Finally, the dabbawalas rely on referrals to grow their customer base. They actively encourage existing customers to introduce friends and relatives to the service. Happy customers (at least 175,000 of them daily) translate to an extensive, cost effective and experienced based word of mouth marketing structure. Who would ever have thought that preferences for hot, familiar home cooked meals would give rise to a globally recognised, extremely manual success story?

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The writer would like to acknowledge the following sources of information: Pradip Thakker, Triarchy Press and Smart Manager Magazine.